In recent weeks, months, and years, amidst a series of difficult political moments, I’ve found myself thinking regularly about the University of Portland motto: Veritas vos liberabit, or “the truth will set us free.” I assume it was originally selected for its overlapping meanings – referring both to religious truth, as in John 8:32 “Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free,” and to truth as the object of academic inquiry. I also assume we can all agree in the abstract that shared truths are critical to a good liberal arts education at the University of Portland (and, as if to reinforce that value, our recently retired Provost even titled his departing collection of UP defining essays “Veritas vos Liberabit”). It is, in fact, a key value to a good liberal arts education anywhere – according to that contemporary arbiter of “truth” Wikipedia “The truth will set you free” is a motto shared by U.P. and other universities ranging from the University of Tennessee, to Canterbury Christ Church University in England, to the Catholic University of Uruguay, to Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.
But, given the current state of public discourse and the power our society has given to people who lie brazenly, dangerously, and pathologically, we can’t assume that our students will recognize the importance of the truth. Not, at least, without a collective commitment to understanding truth itself. This commitment is essential to our Core curriculum, it is essential to the liberal arts, and it may be more difficult to achieve than it first appears.
The president of Rollins College articulated this nicely in a 2018 essay on truth and the liberal arts for Inside Higher Education:
A liberally educated person is one who is free — equipped and empowered — to make up their own mind, not subject to the authority of others, not easily swayed by charlatans. If we accomplish nothing else, our graduates should have sufficient skills in reasoning and critical thinking to recognize the difference between a sound argument and demagoguery.
All that said, we academics have become shy about teaching facts. Because we are all so schooled in the tools of critique, there is hardly a truth claim that we cannot interrogate, deconstruct or criticize. Consequently, we have often substituted the teaching of intellectual skills and critical thinking for teaching with any confidence what is the case in the world.”
So how, in the face of both demagoguery and critical deconstruction, might we teach the truth? The only fair answer is probably: very carefully. It’s not easy, and there are real issues of power and privilege that too often shape what we accept as truth. The truth may also mean different things in different disciplines. In many academic contexts there are plural truths (though almost never, despite mean-spirited critiques, do academics really believe the truth is completely relative). And there may also be plural ways to weave discussions of truth into our classes and our curriculum.
In the revitalized Core we are going to try to start students thinking about truth as part of a liberal arts education in the new Anchor Seminar – an evolution of the first year workshop that all new students will take starting in the Fall of 2021. One goal for that course will be to introduce students to information literacy and academic integrity, which are both key topics if we want students to value truth. But it will be a necessarily brief introduction, and will require much support from the rest of the courses students take throughout their University of Portland education. Many UP faculty will already know better than I how to weave the value of the truth into other classes, but in hopes of sparking some further thinking on the topic here’s just a few ideas I’ve come across in my own recent truth explorations (several of which are derived from a good recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education on “Teaching in the Age of Disinformation” and an accompanying teaching guide):
Teach truth when you talk about academic integrity and plagiarism. Students generally know that they shouldn’t just cut-and-paste other people’s words as their own. That doesn’t always stop them from doing it, but there is usually still a general sense that it is wrong. But I’m not sure students think about it as a threat to the truth – as a small lie that can aid and abet bigger lies. In my own classes I often just take for granted that students know they shouldn’t plagiarize – but I rarely take assignments as a chance to talk through why plagiarism is a threat not just to individual grades but also to shared truth claims. Our UP library has some useful resources related to helping students understand plagiarism on their web-site, and maybe sometimes our rubrics can occasionally open opportunities to discuss bigger ideas about the origins of ideas?
Teach truth by helping students develop information literacy. I generally find students to be really good at looking things up on the internet, and not really good at discerning whether the things they find are legitimate and truthful. Things that seem simple to us as academics, like the difference between peer-reviewed research and journalism, need unpacking for students. And we all know the proliferation of internet sources has made information literacy more important and more challenging. Fortunately, there are experts – including many librarians such as those in our UP team – who have ways of helping students sift information. As examples of sources I’ve seen referenced lately, here is a useful looking open-source book by a WSU-Vancouver scholar on Web Literacy for Student Fact-Checkers…and other people who care about facts, here’s The Debunking Handbook “written by a team of 22 prominent scholars of misinformation”, and here’s a guide to “Citizen Literacy” from the University of Louisville library.
Teach truth when you discuss disciplinary methods and “ways of knowing.” All academic disciplines have methodology courses that are central to their field of study both because students need to know those methods to do the discipline and because those methods are the way disciplines know their truths. Sometimes, however, we may focus more on the methods and results than we do on the discussion. The Chronicle article referenced above talks about this in relation to data science and discussions of things like COVID-19, where we often default to an over-simplified “follow the science” mantra. The suggestion there is that: “Students would benefit…if professors spent more time explaining how their discipline functions. Who do the experts turn to to understand how something in their field works? How is knowledge built? Describing to students how the World Health Organization comes up with its guidance around Covid-19, and how that differs from the CDC’s decision-making process, he says, is of greater long-term value for most students than understanding how mitochondria operate.” While this fits with the sciences, it would likely be useful for any faculty (and not just philosophers talking about epistemology) to have explicit discussions with students about how the methodologies we all teach are actually ways of defining the truth.
Teach truth when helping students make arguments and have discussions. One of the foundational things I tell students about social science is that claims have to be based on evidence. In the social sciences we are after empirical truths, and the scientific method provides the ultimate foundation for those truths. Sometimes I even make analogies to our legal system – for a legal claim to be valid, it has to have evidence. Lawyers can object when truth claims are just “speculation,” and my students should object when social scientists (or their peers) make claims without evidence. Yet I’m consistently amazed by how many students have been conditioned over time to start their claims with “I believe…” or “In my opinion…” Having beliefs and opinions are important and may constitute personal truths, but for an academic community (or any community) to function we have to have the types of shared truths that need real evidence. Evidence can come in many forms, and what constitutes evidence will vary by academic discipline. But evidence is a reason we know that the recent U.S. presidential election was not stolen (because our judicial system worked and dismissed the dozens of speculative cases that had no real evidence), and having respect for evidence is one critical way that the truth might indeed ultimately set us free.