The Role Of Higher Education In A ‘Post-Truth’ Era

from Education Dive

From the Ancient Greeks to educational reformer John Dewey, and from the suffrage and civil rights movements to modern issues of inequality, educated citizens have played a key role in participatory democracy.

And universities have advanced this role by preparing students to critically engage with the issues that affect their lives. At institutions of higher learning, students gain the tools to discover and evaluate facts, test theories and deepen their understanding of themselves and the world.

But our current cultural moment has raised an urgent question: What is the role of higher education at a time when the very ideas of truth, facts and core principles of justice seem up for grabs? At a time like this, I would argue that liberal arts education is more urgently needed than ever before.

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12 Comments

  1. In today’s world there is a lot of pressure to attend college. Everyone wants to go to college and get it over with, hoping the end result is a full time job offer. Even students who are truly interested in specific fields and their own major, still only care about their field and the job that will hopefully come by graduation. Everyone is guilty of this because it makes sense, someone needs a secure job to support themselves and to also pay back student loans. Although this is important, so is a liberal arts education. Many students today complain about the different electives they must take and wonder why they can not just take classes in their major. These students do no realize that the point of college is to obtain knowledge, not just in one subject. I believe this is what Grant Cornwell is talking about. Students must be taught facts in many different areas. Despite all of this, it makes sense why students do not want to take classes in other areas. So many classes today are not taught well, and combined with a student’s lack of interest, these students will never learn what they are supposed to. To take Cornwell’s point further, there are other areas of college that are also important outside of someone’s major classes. One good example is networking. One point of going to college is to meet new people. Some colleges also do not do a good job in this area. Student’s need help from faculty to point them into the right direction before they can start making professional connections. Overall, I think Cornwell is right and students need to leave college more prepared for the real world.

  2. Cornwell brings up great points about having a fact-based worldview. In theory, he is absolutely right that if everyone was knowledgeable in their fields and had facts to base their opinions off of, the world would be able to better diagnose problems and find solutions for them. In reality, most college students go to college to get a degree so that they could find a job. This is the main role of higher education in the modern day. However, there are other roles for higher education including networking. It is great that college students have many different opinions on a variety of topics. However, it seems as though more and more people base their beliefs off unsubstantiated “facts” as Cornwell alludes to. I believe the role of college is to put students in a position after graduating to make decisions that benefit themselves and individuals around them in their life. This differs from Cornwell’s role in that I do not think it is really possible to teach concrete facts outside of a few subjects including math and science. With technology and the internet, people’s minds open to many different things. This can influence them more than anything taught in college today in a positive or negative way.
    Truth is something that is hard to define nowadays. Cornwell says it perfectly when he states that a person’s ideology means more to that person than the facts they know. This goes for any field and any belief. College is good for teaching critical thinking based on a set of facts. When it is difficult to distinguish facts from opinions and twisted data, what is there to go off of? A professor that I recently had said something that struck my mind and stayed with me since. He said that there are two facts in life that everyone can agree on. These facts are that we are born and that we die. Everything in between can vary from person to person. In this “post-truth” era, it feels as though this statement is enlarged. One individual’s truth is another individual’s false. It will be very interesting to see how the role of college evolves in this “post-truth” era.

  3. Being engaged in higher education is so important, now more than ever. In order to get certain jobs, people must have certain academic credentials. As for living daily life, many people are uninformed. Life is more than just knowing information, but how to look for information, take it in and understand the information, and then use the information to make a proper judgement of the situation. Thinking objectively in a time of were false information is presented in the masses, is mandatory. Teaching students what sorts of information to look out for, whether it be political or social, would help propel generations forward. People may not always have similar opinions, but a major part of the problem is the fact that people do not have the correct information to even asses what the true problem is, let alone have some form of bias on it. Now, information is often given from a biased standpoint, mostly because that is usually the information people have the easiest access to. The truth is fact, regardless of bias. People have to be taught the importance of finding factual information first, before creating opinions or reading other people’s opinions.

  4. I truly believe that the author makes a good point about how the general public takes everything at face value. We believe things to be true because they are presented to us as facts. Being critical thinkers and looking more into things would definitely make us as people and as a society much better off and more well rounded. Throughout elementary school and into high school we are only presented with what is known as facts. We are not taught to look at things from different angles or to question authority. College however, works a little bit differently. Professors try to expand your mind and get you to think about things in different ways. I agree with the author in saying that if we want to educate the general public on how to think critically college is probably the best place to get that accomplished. The only problem is that most people in college have no interest in that.

    Before people went to college if they wanted to continue in their education or to reach higher levels in their career. Nowadays it seems as if you can’t get any real job without some sort of degree. Because of that going to college is no longer a noble quest or privilege. It’s now something that is simply expected of everybody. Most people go to college not necessarily because they want to but because they feel as if they have no other choice. Because these people are going to college more out of necessity and are spending an obscene amount of money to do so, they aren’t interested in learning anything that isn’t going to help them make money. As a personal example I started out as a liberal arts major but then I switched to business. I remember sitting in some of my classes learning about culture and philosophy. The only thing on my mind was “how is this going to help me?” I cared more about managing money than discovering the meaning of life. Now that I’m a little bit older I do truly believe that critical thinking will absolutely benefit me in my life. After the 2016 election I have learned to question the information that is given to me. It’s taken me a while and a lot of research to truly understand how the truth works and how it is manipulated by the media. If everyone was able to take the information given to them and dissect it properly we would live in a much better world. I agree with the author in that respect but I’m just not sure if college is the right place to teach the public how to do that.

  5. As a current college student, I firmly believe and support the values of pursuing a degree in higher education, which has benefited me significantly in regards to my personal growth, intellectual curiosity, and journey to adulthood. I agree with Grant Cornwell’s concerns and his overall message in the article pertaining to the importance of liberal arts; it is beneficial to not only focus on career building and networking with peers/alumni while enrolled at a university, but it is also advantageous to develop relevant capabilities such as being able to critical think, problem solve, and collaborate effectively in a team environment. In my core curriculum, I have taken business courses alongside with liberal arts electives relating to humanities, sciences, and creative arts. With the writing and public speech courses, I was able to expand/improve upon my writing and communication skills, which have helped me structure my professional resume, perform effectively in group presentations, and engage appropriately at job interviews. Additionally, my economics and political science classes have helped me understand implications of proposed regulations and political ideologies cultivated in the last election by the 2016 presidential candidates. Holistically, what I’m trying to gather in these specific examples is the applicability of the skill sets and framework acquired from my liberal arts education to a variety of real life/personal situations. I am thankful for the educational diversity I have received as an undergraduate student because not only was each class interesting, but it also positively impacted the way I evaluate and analyze information, as well as developed my specific approaches to complex issues.

  6. This article, while it being short and concise, was very interesting because it addressed three topics that have recently been in debate, fake news, politics, and liberal arts higher education. Fake news is like yellow journalism where news articles, broadcast, and other mediums present fake facts and made up stories as real news to purposefully make a person, business, or entity look bad. Fake news is present in many social media ads and online websites that are looking to get more views then give out reliable information to the public. Uneducated people who read these stories believe everything on the internet and are persuaded that this news is truthful. The author of this article, Grant Cornwell, believes that this is the reason higher education, especially a liberal arts education will improve the minds of the youth and democracy.
    Cornwell believes that liberal arts education reinforces one’s ideology and teaches how to decipher true and false information through reasoning and critical thinking. I agree with him because liberal arts classes are not technical or focus on one topic, they are fluid. All classes in liberal arts can influence each other because they force students to think critically about what is being taught and how to integrate these lessons into the world today. This can help students learn about themselves and create their own views. When ideology and values are created, it is easier for someone to form a political stance.
    It has been proven that the younger generation, who are eligible to vote, account for a small percentage of people who partake in elections and fulfill their civic duty. Who is to blame for this if blame can be placed and whose responsibility is it to get young voters participating in elections? Is it the government’s responsibility, schools, parents, or the individual’s responsibility? I believe that it is all of the above and that if a liberal arts education was promoted and valued more, younger individuals would have the opportunity to form their own political views.
    Fellow blogger Victor P forms a compelling example when he reveals that even as a successful senior in college, he would still struggle to clearly communicate his knowledge on important topics such as climate change, the global distribution of wealth, and the history of democracy and capitalism. As a junior in college I can agree that I would also struggle with these topics. I do not know what Victor has studied, but from my own experience I am certain that, although I am a business major, the liberal arts classes that I have taken have helped me understand the importance of these topics and how to create my own viewpoint once I have been better educated on them.

  7. RE: President Speaks: The role of higher education in a ‘post-truth’ era.

    This article is an interesting piece to read and it launched me deep into a thought process that changed direction multiple times. Grant Cornwell brought a subject that has been on my mind lately into this article, so it seems appropriate for me to dissect it. I have been bothered a lot by what appears to be young Americans being told how to think and how to feel. College students have for the most part just entered into adulthood and their minds are like sponges, absorbing everything and anything that seems useful for their long-term success. There are a lot of basic skills that college students are just beginning to acquire. Not all of these skills are career-related. Many of the skills will help them navigate through everyday life. Then there is one of the most important skills, which is critical thinking. The unfortunate thing is that I have heard the term “critical thinking” multiple times in my college courses and it does not seem like many of the educators understand its true meaning. Critical thinking’s definition has become the professor’s analysis. Instead of developing their own opinions through careful analysis of every angle of a situation, students are basically just agreeing with what they are told. I do not feel as though it is morally right for someone in a mentoring position to use it in order to persuade those who look up to him or her. I had a professor a few semesters ago who pushed writing in a technical course to teach his students the art of “critical thinking”. He preferred the responses to his posts that began with “I agree” to the ones that examined every angle of them. It took me by surprise because he had a degree in philosophy. At the end of the semester I performed a search for him online and found a page in which he described himself as a “radical”. The point is, he was not fit to teach critical thinking and it showed because he was taking advantage of his position to push his “radical” agenda. Worse yet, I could have learned the unrelated subject matter on a much more detailed level like I expected when I registered for the course had it not been for the “critical thinking” exercises.

    After reading this article, I am eager to get my hands on the book that Cornwell spoke about, “Factfulness” by Hans Rosling. In the book, Rosling writes that people fail to hear about important facts regarding global trends because they are in conflict with popular opinion or are not sensational enough to make the news. He goes on to say that popular views are based upon “mega misconceptions” as a result of a market driven media. A market driven media must post sensational stories to capture its markets attention. Additionally, news is skewed towards a media’s political market, leading to one-sided reporting that is all about accusations and exaggerations of what the opposing political parties are doing to create disharmony. People feel aggravated and anxious and base their opinions on a mix of these emotions and the distorted information that they are being fed.

    Cornwell proposes that institutions of higher learning shift the focus back to fact-based teaching. In his words, “If we begin with a well-grounded account of what is actually the case, we will have a much better chance of addressing the problems and perils that actually threaten it.” He believes that it is a teacher’s duty to prepare his or her students with as many facts as possible so that they are prepared to make informed decisions and develop their own opinions. Then they will be better able to serve themselves as well as the world in which they live. The thoughts expressed in this article are well aligned with my own. I believe that students need to not only be taught actual facts, but they need to know how to determine whether something is a fact or misinformation. The Internet worked its way into our lives so rapidly that we are still in a learning stage, but we don’t quite realize it yet. There is so much information to be found online, but it is not all fact and what is not fact is definitely not unbiased. The best way to prepare college students for critical thinking is to teach them how to determine whether something is fact or if the information is malformed in order to sway one’s opinion. With the combination of fact-based knowledge gained throughout college and the ability to acquire additional facts throughout the remainder of one’s life, a person is better equipped to make his or her own assessments of the world.

  8. This article doesn’t just bring up the point of bringing “liberal” education back into society, it also raises a larger question of who do we hold accountable for straying away from facts? It is a growing problem not only in our education system, but also in American politics as we start to see policies and ideologies solely based on emotions. Although emotions play a large role in making our decisions, only basing policies on our emotions leads us away from the truth. As a society, who do we hold accountable for this? Well, the only people we can blame are ourselves. One of these problems apparent is society is the “victim mentality”. We start to see how specific groups (racial, gender, religion, etc) start to demand justice, saying that they are victims and just because they are victims, they deserve something that others don’t. What they fail to consider, however, is the facts. Playing the “victim” not only has everything to do with basing their political agenda one their emotions, but while doing so, strays away from others and drifts our society apart even more. In a time where our country is more divided than ever, we need something to bring us back together. And where does this start? The answer is simple- liberal arts education.

    Although there are benefits to going to a non-liberal arts college, while at a liberal arts college, one has important learning goals- information literacy, critical thinking, ethical reasoning, mathematical thinking and scientific literacy. These goals allow us to go back to a time where emotions did not drive our political agenda, but facts did. These goals not only allow one to think for his or herself in the classroom, it also helps them discover who they are as a citizen. The article raises an excellent point that rather than just graduating college knowing how, they know that. I found I could relate to this in a very different way. As we go through college, we our taught step-by-step on paper how to do something, or how to be something, but we never really understand what it means to know that or be that thing. Being that doesn’t mean you take the name, it means that you understand where it came from, what it actually is, and what goes along with being that thing. As a member of the Stillman Leadership Institute, I take this into consideration. I don’t just claim to be a “leader”, I know what a leader does and what it means to be a leader not only inside the classroom, but outside.

    One of the most important parts of the article I thought was the section labeled “objectivity”. It gave the example of something Americans look at for information everyday- news channels. We tend to favor one news channel more than the other because of our political beliefs, and whatever that channel says, we take as factually correct; however, we forget that the news media is “market-driven” meaning they will say anything to get ratings. This goes along with the idea of objectivity. We have to have a “fact-based worldview” about everything, rather than “idea-based worldview”. We must look at things objectively, versus subjectively.

  9. I definitely agree that universities should be a place where national and international issues are discussed and analyzed. The students that attend all of the universities around the country are going to be the future leaders of this country and it is urgent that they learn how to analyze political issues and ideas objectively. Like the article said, it is important now more than ever that students learn to participate in our democracy. I also agree with the importance of education in liberal arts as the article suggests. Now is a time where learning how to think and being free from bias is of the upmost importance. There are so many networks and organizations today that try to persuade people and influence how they think. Being able to objective view information is a skill that all young Americans are going to need to learn how to do. Generally speaking many universities are putting at lot of effort into teaching their students to be objective when it comes to political ideas and information. However, there are many professors employed across the country that do not and push their ideas on to their students.
    In my two years of college education I have experienced professors that do exactly what this article preaches and they remain objective and teach their students to do the same. Unfortunately, I have also had quite a few professors that do exactly the opposite. They let their political ideas influence how and what they teach, this can have a serious negative impact on student’s ability to remain objective and unbiased. When students hear information from the professor of their class it is expected that the information, they are given is fact and not the opinions of the professor. When a professor is pushing their opinions about politics as fact it hinders a student’s ability to remain objective and see the other side of the issue. I think that this is the place where universities are failing the most, there should be steps being taken to ensure that their professors are not involving their personal beliefs in the subject they are teaching. The role of a professor is to present students with facts and teach them how analyze and criticize them in order to form their own opinions

  10. The role of higher education seems to not only enhance students’ understanding of the world around them, but also their understanding of themselves. However, this article talks about the role of education in an era in which truth, facts, and the idea of justice seems to be up for grabs. Colleges and universities must practice becoming free from biases and ignorance. Higher education should be intended to make a person feel capable, empowered, and free. What is learned in the classroom must extend into the real-world. If professors encourage students to think critically and apply their intellectual skill to more than just their academics, the idea of a higher education because more purposeful. Being able to apply intellectual skill and reasoning to more than just math or science will allow people to stand up against the societal issues in this “post-truth” era. Of course, when one considers pursuing a college education, that person has hope to become more prepared for the real-world. Although, with a certain major and career path in mind, that person is only suspected to become educated in that field. A higher education should be intended to teach students how to be active citizens and become more aware of the global problems that have yet been solved. Students need to gain a better understanding of their purpose not just as a future accountant, doctor, lawyer, engineer, or teacher, but their role as a citizen and leader. At Seton Hall, I feel as though students are taught more than what it takes to pursue any of the careers listed above. Students are taught what it takes to be a successful leader both in their future place of work as well as society.

  11. In 1980, Isaac Asimov was quoted as saying, “There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there has always been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that ‘my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge’.”
    I do not know if that quote could be any more prescient than in today’s world, where cynicism reigns supreme, and where (as Cornwell eloquently points out in this article), “there is hardly a truth claim that we cannot interrogate, deconstruct or criticize.” Moreover, I would submit that there has been a willful ignorance that has been exacerbated by this societal acceptance of being able to dispute facts because one disagrees with what the facts state.
    Obviously, we have seen this discrepancy as applied to the scientific community in some major ways. There are hordes of willfully ignorant people that falsely claim (and adamantly believe) that vaccines – the most studied area of modern medicine – are at least ineffective, at most cause terrible conditions like autism, and at paranoid-delusional are a tool of the government for any number of nefarious reasons.
    For decades there has been a divide in believing the facts about climate change, and whether or not the 97% of the scientific community worldwide is correct in their painstakingly modeled predictions. Opponents of these findings often claim that they are overblown, or that the scientists involved are politically motivated (ignoring, of course, that scientists from, say, Finland, care not about the politics of the United States). If irony was not currently in the throes of death (largely, in part, due to the subject we are discussing here), one could point to the fact that scientists working for Exxon came to virtually the same conclusions as the climate-change-supporting scientists. The difference is that their research was buried for business and, wait for it, political reasons.
    There are still non-religious schools, public schools, in the United States that require biology curriculums to include the teaching of both Creation/Intelligent Design Theory as well as evolutionary theory – despite the fact that evolution has been proven as much as anything can be proven via science, and is completely at odds with the idea that an omnipotent being suddenly decided to make everything over the course of a week or so.
    As (Christopher) Hitchens’ Razor says, “What can be asserted without evidence, can be dismissed without evidence.”
    Furthermore, I subscribe to the belief that part of the reason there is such a societal divide on the current presidential administration resides in the lack of civics education our citizenry receives. When I went through high school (oh, a little over two decades ago), we had one civics class in our freshman year. That was it.
    Would this not go a long way to explaining why a sizable portion of the country’s electorate seems to find no issue with the Senate ignoring their Constitutional duty to hold confirmation hearings for a Supreme Court nomination, as seen with Merrick Garland, or that the seemingly constant violations of presidential norms being violated by Donald Trump (not placing businesses in blind trust, profiting from the office of the presidency, flagrantly disregarding the Constitutionally-placed checks and balances on the power of the Executive Branch)? The same group of willfully ignorant people who show up wearing tactical gear and brandishing assault rifles any time they feel their 2nd Amendment rights are being threatened by common sense reform are excruciatingly silent when it comes to other Constitutional trespasses – as seen most recently in voter registration purges in Wisconsin and Ohio, and in the systematic reduction in polling places and availability.
    I couldn’t agree more with this article’s premise, but I feel like it runs deeper. Most Americans do not attend college, so while it’s incumbent on college/university faculties around the country to heed this message, I feel it is of paramount importance for this philosophy to be forced back into the K-12 curriculum… before we all really start debating whether 2+2=5.

  12. Grant Cornwells fascinating article, The Role of Higher Education in a “post truth” Era, discusses the current anti-intellectual culture of America, and it’s threat to democracy. This is an issue that I have frequently thought of, when thinking about the extreme polarization in America’s political climate. I think a large part of the problem lies with the fact that there is endless information easily available to everyone, in the age of the internet. Anyone can write anything about anything, whether they know what they are talking about or not. This then allows uneducated people, or people with some ulterior motive to believe things that contradict 100% bonafide facts. These types of people have a strangely arrogant mentality that they are special and perhaps more educated than the rest of the people that believe the facts. I believe that this mentality leads people further and further down the rabbit’s hole of these “alternative facts”, because a part of their identity and ideology then become threatened by real facts. So they choose to disregard science and well researched evidence as it questions their beliefs. A vicious cycle occurs because when their beliefs are opposed they can easily reassure themselves with more unresearched “evidence”. I have always been frustrated by this topic because I have never seen a clear solution for the problem. Cornwells identifies how he thinks the core of this issue can be addressed. And that is through mentorship of University Leaders, to not only teach free thinking, but to also teach students facts. In theory this is the best solution, however it will be very hard to actually work. I think that people that would lean towards disregarding facts will still question the authority, motives and knowledge of the university leaders. It will also take extremely passionate university leaders, which everyone can’t be. This solution also leaves out the people that don’t go to college, or highschool at all. I think the global trends literacy test by Hans Rosling is an interesting idea that might provide a solution for the future. Maybe a global trend and general economic literacy test must be passed in order for US citizens to be allowed to vote. I think if you’re going to vote for the leaders of the country you should have a general understanding on how the government and economy work. And you should have to believe facts and not fiction. I know this is not the most democratic view. But getting a driver’s license is a right, but you have to pass a test to get a license. Because people driving without knowing how to drive would be dangerous. I think the same can be said about uneducated voters. It can have dangerous consequences.

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