To preserve our democracy, the time has come for American colleges and universities to center the concept of truth in undergraduate education.
Americans today are bombarded daily with inflated advertising claims, false statements from political leaders, television propaganda masquerading as news and misleading toxic sludge on social media. These powerful forces are chipping away at our shared sense of reality. This development has serious negative consequences for our democratic experiment in self-government, driving a wedge between polarized groups who no longer agree not just on values, but on the basic shape of empirical reality and acceptable forms of argument.
We see the results of this trend in denial of climate change, the baseless rejection of recent elections and the growth and popularity of bizarre conspiracy theories.
The academy has unintentionally contributed to this trend. Most college students are never exposed to a sophisticated and sustained examination of truth. The major exception: classes in social theory and literary studies that call into question the very possibility of truth itself. These approaches, grounded in Nietzsche and Marx, have undoubted merit. But unless they are accompanied by an examination of other truth traditions, from philosophy, science and mathematical logic, they give undergraduates a false sense that the “death of truth” is a foregone conclusion, representing a consensus, not a contested view. Students need to understand that truth norms in the Geisteswissenschaften may be radically different from, and irrelevant to, truth claims in other disciplines.
I am generally not in favor of “core curricula” or mandatory classes at the undergraduate level. We are all on our own unique intellectual journey. Students, in my view, should be encouraged to find their own path. As long as they take (or pass out of) a set of basic skills courses, to make sure they can read, research, write and calculate, I would give them wide freedom to choose what they study.
I believe, however, we must make an exception on the question of truth and require every student to take a basic course on the assessment of various types of truth claims. This course should be viewed, in part, as an essential part of individual human development. It would help students understand and assess questions of truth and interpretation in the remainder of their undergraduate coursework, provide a more sophisticated understanding of the realities of American social media and make them more discerning citizens and leaders after graduation.
But the value of this proposal is also social and collective, not merely individual, because a greater focus on truth is essential if we are to maintain our democracy. As Hannah Arendt once argued, a reverence for the truth is vital to the survival of democracies. “The ideal subject of totalitarian rule,” she observed, “is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced Communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction and the distinction between true and false no longer exist.”
Unfortunately, we are headed rapidly in that direction today. By failing to teach truth in a thoughtful and sophisticated way, we have abandoned the playing field to broadcast and social media, enabling a whole generation of students to think that truth is always purely subjective, a function of perspective, and that claiming something as “my truth” is an argument that cannot be refuted.
Helping citizens tell fact from fiction and truth from lies was challenging in Arendt’s day, in the new age of mass government propaganda, but it is infinitely more difficult today. Absent a major intervention by the higher education community, our nation’s sense of reality, and thus our grand experiment in rational self-government, could tumble.
This is also a vital matter of self-interest for the higher education community. The histories of Russia, Germany and China, among other nations, teach us that free universities can only exist in open, democratic societies. If we do not contribute to the preservation of democracy, we undercut our own existence. If you care about higher education, you have to care about teaching truth.
What would such a course look like? I can imagine a team-taught effort: a scientist sharing ideas about empirical verification and testability, a logician explaining logical truth, tautology and probability; a social scientist on the use and abuse of statistics; a historian on questions of perspective and the evaluation of the weight of evidence; a literary studies professor on interpretation. Students would be exposed to ideas of relativism and the social construction of truth, but those ideas would be placed into context. Students who spent a semester on these questions would emerge with a wiser, more grounded sense of the difference between truth and lies, facts and opinions. They would be better scholars, better citizens and, hopefully, help us construct a bridge to a more honest and thoughtful democratic future.