The University and Truth by David J. Staley

We welcome David J. Staley, Ph.D. as guest author for this week’s IngenioUs blog.  To hear more of Dr. Staley’s insights about the future of universities, check out this IngenioUs podcast conversation:–David-J–Staley-ejiuu9

Karl Jaspers began his 1946 book The Idea of the University with these words:

The university is a community of scholars and students engaged in the task of seeking truth. . . . People are allowed to congregate [at the university] for the sole purpose of seeking truth. For it is a human right that man must be allowed somewhere to pursue truth unconditionally and for its own sake.

Jaspers wrote these words as Europe lay still smoldering in ruins of the Second World War, unleashed by Nazi fanatics who disdained truth.  In a call to reassert the primacy of the Truth, he was as much admonishing the University for its role in the disaster that had befallen Europe.  

Ours is not an analogous time as Jasper’s.  But it is one where the Truth has been similarly assailed.  In such an environment, therefore, it is the duty of the university to reassert its core mission as a place to pursue the truth.

Chronicle of Higher Education writer Beth McMurtrie observes that: 

Disinformation and propaganda are flourishing, traditional sources of authority are under siege, and people increasingly live in politically polarized media ecosystems.  Colleges have traditionally been places where professors and their students use the tools of reason and inquiry to get to the truth. But such work has become monumentally harder because of these changes. Students are entering college not only confused about what and whom to believe, but unsure of how to talk to people who think differently from them. The truth alone may not be enough to win arguments and change minds across the great divide that’s consuming the United States.  

A (re)commitment to Truth as the core mission of the University would also run against several trends over the last few decades, not only over the last four years. Many people—mostly outside of the university but even some within it–believe that producing commercializable, innovative research or job training are the real functions of the university.  For decades, the university has welcomed postmodernist scholars and their “incredulity to metanarratives,” in the words of Jean-Francois Lyotard.  “The pursuit of Truth” is a nice slogan, perhaps, but it has been pushed to the margins, a platitude we feel obliged to announce, but do not actually practice.  Fidelity to truth is not the true strategic mission of the university, its raison detre. 

The University must assert itself as one of the cornerstone institutions of truth in our society.  For these institutions are fragile and are breaking apart.  Brian Rosenberg, president emeritus of Macalester College, draws attention to Joseph Stigliz’s observations about the status of such American institutions: 

Stiglitz made the point that the systems of truth developed since the Enlightenment, despite their contributions to our standard of living and our understanding of the universe, are “dynamically unstable,” that is, subject to disruption that renders them ineffective or inoperable. This is why so many obvious falsehoods spread by demagogues and science deniers have taken such a strong hold on the minds and imaginations of so many people, and why the systems of truth so often and so maddeningly break down. 

Historian Timothy Snyder also observes with alarm that American systems of truth are under threat:  

Post-truth is pre-fascism, and [Donald] Trump has been our post-truth president. When we give up on truth, we concede power to those with the wealth and charisma to create spectacle in its place. Without agreement about some basic facts, citizens cannot form the civil society that would allow them to defend themselves. If we lose the institutions that produce facts that are pertinent to us, then we tend to wallow in attractive abstractions and fictions. 

If it is nothing else, the university is perhaps the most important system of truth in our society.  It is the task of the university to reassert this mission, and to partner with other such institutions to bolster an “antifragile” infrastructure of truth.  Nassim Taleb defines antifragile as a system that is not only resilient to shocks bust actually gets better because of the shocks.  Our systems of truth have most certainly been subject to devastating shocks, but the university is in a position to improve itself because of those shocks.

As I wrote in my previous post, the definition of a University must be carefully constructed, and those institutions that call themselves a university must adhere to a particularly high standard.  Not just any institution of higher learning should wear this moniker.  This is not to suggest that the university cannot also pursue commercializeable research or to train students for the workplace. But the pursuit of truth is the highest goal, and these other are secondary effects of the pursuit of the first.    A University is a particular kind of knowledge enterprise, and it must stand for a different—higher—goal, and there is no greater goal that to seek and disseminate the Truth.  And to value the truth.

This is not to say that seeking the Truth is easy or unproblematic.  Indeed, the Truth might evade our inquires and our methods.  This is different from saying there is no Truth, or that it is relative and subjective, or indeed that there are “alternative truths.”  It is saying that the university provides the space for good-faith efforts to arrive at truth, that we may have rigorous debates about truth.  The university is an epistemological system for identifying, debating, verifying, disseminating and valuing the truth.  

The University cannot stand alone as the only institution in society commitment to the Truth.  But it surely is one of the most important, vital and necessary of such institutions.  

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