Note: This guest column was submitted by Michael A. McRobbie, president, Indiana University. It appeared in the HuffPost on January 9, 2018.
On Sunday, as part of her moving and well-received speech at the Golden Globe Awards telecast, Oprah Winfrey expressed gratitude to those individuals with an “insatiable dedication to uncovering the absolute truth that keeps us from turning a blind eye to corruption and to injustice.”
“What I know for sure is that speaking your truth is the most powerful tool we all have,” she added.
We might be wise to emblazon Winfrey’s words on the diplomas of all of today’s college graduates, who will enter what is increasingly being called the “post-truth era” — a time in which there is a growing and disturbingly widespread disregard of truth, and truth is increasingly ignored in favor of prejudice. Today we routinely witness rampant attacks on established knowledge, a fundamental rejection in some quarters of basic science, and political upheaval around the globe driven by wild claims and spurious statistics.
Her words should also serve as a strong reminder to colleges and universities like mine — and a rejoinder to those within and outside the academy who would only have us focus on the financial value of a college degree — that we have a fundamental obligation to teach reverence for the truth, the same way we teach marketable skills that will help our students get good jobs after they graduate.
In short, teaching truth and training our students for the jobs of tomorrow are — and must always be viewed as — inseparable.
From their earliest days in the classroom, students have been taught that truth is an elemental component of our moral and ethical systems. “Telling the truth” is regarded as a fundamental part of our relations with other people, not just for its pragmatic utility but as a good in itself. Furthermore, the ability to change one’s mind in the face of new evidence and new facts remains one of the most revered of virtues.
Truth, too, is fundamental to science. We rely every day on the truth of certain scientific principles, even to the point that we take them for granted. When we travel on an airplane, seek the care of a physician or enter a sports arena to cheer on our favorite teams, we trust that the principles of aerodynamics, the foundations of science-based medicine, the laws of physics and the principles of engineering are true.
In a contentious political climate that underscores the deep divisions within our country, it is even more vital that colleges and universities reaffirm their commitment to educating students for a lifetime of active citizenship. And doing so means they must not close themselves off from challenging conversations. Just the opposite: It means ensuring that campuses remain places that protect free and open expression, and encourage students to engage with a diversity of ideas and viewpoints — even those they might strongly disagree with and which make them uncomfortable.
Educating students to be engaged in their communities also means helping them develop the skills to critically evaluate the massive volume of new ideas and information they are constantly bombarded with in today’s digital age. Regardless of the field of employment they will enter, students will need the type of analytical, creative, historical and logical thinking required to have difficult conversations, evaluate the trustworthiness of sources and understand what constitutes a valid argument.
Our society has a vital need for those with such an education — for those trained in truth and who have a reverence for truth. Devising solutions to the most difficult challenges our society faces will depend on applying the power of logic and reason to extensive bodies of factual information hard won over many decades. Our society needs policy-makers, scientists, public servants, business executives and other leaders who have an understanding of the importance of truth and will serve as standard-bearers of this cornerstone of our country’s democracy.