Higher Education in a Time of Insurrection

As I watched far too much television news on Wednesday evening, I heard many references to the fragility of democracy. I found myself thinking, however, about what the economist Joseph Stiglitz described in a 2018 lecture as “the fragility of truth.” Stiglitz made the point that the systems of truth […]

As I watched far too much television news on Wednesday evening, I heard many references to the fragility of democracy. I found myself thinking, however, about what the economist Joseph Stiglitz described in a 2018 lecture as “the fragility of truth.”

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. How is it possible that so many people continue to deny the reality of climate change? What in the world is happening with QAnon? And Trump: how?

Preserving a commitment to the truth is hard because lying is easy. Truth typically requires the underpinning of evidence, on matters both large (evolution) and small (“I could not have been in that bar because I was at home at the time with my brother”). Truth is indifferent to our desires. It can be reassuring or terrifying, a confirmation or a repudiation of our most deeply held beliefs. Often it takes some time to explain.

Lying requires no work and has no limits. It demands no proof. Like a magic lamp in a legend, it can grant every wish and fulfill every desire. It can bend and shape itself to fit the circumstances of the moment. It can fit tidily within 140 or 280 characters. Told often and emphatically enough, lies can overwhelm the truth by raising questions about whether there is truth. It takes effort to gather and report actual news; it takes almost none to declare all inconvenient news “fake.”

This is why authoritarians always view education, and higher education in particular, as a threat. The fundamental job of the college or university is to teach students to distinguish the true from the untrue, fact from opinion, evidence from insistence. This is not to say that colleges do this perfectly, that all or even most important things can be unequivocally proved, or that all people on a campus will agree on consequential truths. But an English major as much as a physics major, an artist as much as an economist, should, if the college is doing its job well, learn to understand the difference between assertions supported or unsupported by evidence.

We need more people to attend college not chiefly because our economy demands it but because our democracy depends on it.

Those who want higher education to be more narrowly focused on the vocational or who argue that we overvalue the importance of a college degree underestimate the profound importance of this commitment to the understanding of truth. Thomas Jefferson is a problematic figure, but his warning that “if a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be” is prescient. Jefferson was not cautioning against the absence of vocational training or even of the ability to read and write; he was cautioning against the absence of the ability, within a broad segment of the populace, to recognize the difference between truth and lies, between reality and authoritarian fantasy, and the incompatibility of this absence with the effective functioning of a democracy.

A growing cadre of politicians and academics has argued in recent years that the emphasis on increasing access to college represents a kind of arrogant meritocracy that demeans the value of those who do not attend college. This contention strikes me as misguided, as an easy excuse for our collective failure to make higher education more accessible. Belief in the importance of college completion is an act not of arrogance but of civic responsibility. We need more people to attend college not chiefly because our economy demands it but because our democracy depends on it.

I don’t care whether people leave college arguing for or against supply-side economics, for or against socialism or capitalism, for or against a particular piece of legislation or public policy; I want them to leave college knowing how to argue. Denied that knowledge, they are, I believe, more likely to express their frustrations by tossing a rock through a window.

Of course, learning how to perceive the truth is no guarantee of respect for the truth. There will always be those, like Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley, who know the truth but abandon it in pursuit of power and self-interest. No college or other structure in society can prevent this. Educating more people, however, might make it less likely that such people are elected to positions of power. There is a reason Donald Trump, in a rare moment of honesty, proclaimed, “I love the poorly educated.” Without them he would not be president. This is not elitism; it is the truth.

Before November’s presidential election I described Trump as an “epistemological hand grenade.” On January 6 the world saw that hand grenade explode on the steps of the United States Capitol.

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