The role of universities in the post-truth era

Here are three hypotheses:
  • • More and more years in colleges and universities make us understand truth and reality better, and help us in building a better, just and unified society as members of the society can take better decisions by applying better judgment.

  • • Ubiquitous and easily accessible information make us understand the truth or reality better, and thereby help us in making better decisions, individually as well as in a collective manner.

  • • More education and more information for more or all of us can make us, in general, more confused, according to anecdotal evidence. Access to higher education and information may act against our ability to make better decisions and apply judgment, or even make it harder to identify and accept experts’ views.
If these hypotheses were submitted for undergraduate, postgraduate or PhD level study from the 1990s onwards, any university scrutiny committee would have, in all likelihood, rejected them from the offset – stating the hypotheses to be obvious and clearly evident (the first two being highly likely and third being highly unlikely), with some natural exceptions as is usual in any social science studies.

Retesting them in the context of Western liberal democracies again in 2017 should be tantamount to an obvious and glaring waste of time. Time and context change. It is as if we have been passing through some paradigm shift in the span of a couple of decades.

Post-truth everywhere: Or did we miss it earlier?

Since the Oxford English Dictionary announced post-truth as the word of the year for 2016, a lot has been said about it. Ole Petter Ottersen highlighted the need to protect academic freedom and to use it with due responsibility. Once that has gone, he says, we are on a slippery slope.

Freeing academic campuses from the grip of politics and ideology is vital – all political ideologies can coexist in a university without the campus succumbing to any one in particular.

India has lately been a victim of what happens when politics and ideology take over noisy but vibrant university campuses.

Once academic freedom is protected from post-truth politics and its implications, other actions can follow. Once survival is ensured, an attempt can be made to address the root causes driving this post-truth phenomena.

The current situation in much of the West's leading democracies and in the world’s largest democracy, India, is looking quite bleak. Examples are plentiful; just as journalists in many nations face threats and organisations like Reporters Without Borders track this, we may have the need for such organisations globally to monitor academic freedom on campuses because their role is all the more important in the post-truth era.

Many academics have examined how universities should respond to this new era. Michelle Mielly in The Conversation presented some simple but profound ideas on how we can remove our individual biases – arising from our present individual sense of belonging while conducting classroom discussions in the age-old Socratic manner on complex issues which can, otherwise, be divisive in nature.

Others like Katherine Schulten and Amanda Christy Brown in The New York Times gave similar views – why media studies are critical, across most disciplines, to overcome an important deficit of our present times: ‘digital naïveté’.

Peter McGuire in The Irish Times stressed a similar view, asking why media studies and critical thinking skills have become important and should be nurtured in universities.

Many of these articles reflect an unequivocal acceptance from the academic fraternity at large that education, from schools to colleges to universities, has an additional role to play in ensuring that these post-truth characteristics, seen everywhere lately, do not worsen.

Academic governance and university regulations, internal and external, are different and complex animals across different nations. So realising something needs to be done by the academic fraternity is one thing; taking it to the classroom is another. At times, years can pass by as we hover between these two stages.

Same narrative, different versions

In spite of the convergence of thinking among academics on what the problem is and what the solution should be, there is no agreement on who is perpetuating the post-truth narrative and who its victims are.

Following the Middle Path, it may not be wrong to say that, although post-truth is the latest word of the year, its characteristics have been around for some time. It’s just that the intensity and coverage of it has gone up with every passing year.

No one is permanently branded as a source of post-truth politics or facts: it is within all of us to be that source, with the intensity and degree varying in a relative way.

Academic voices are, in general, not politically motivated. Most academics have more important and wider things to ponder beyond the current, ongoing short time period in history so long as current politics allows the academic community their own, legitimate space of freedom – from teaching to research.

Academics are not necessarily activists. However, when post-truth starts affecting their work, they may have no other option but to confront it.

And the solution is indeed complex – to ensure that universities become accessible to all youth of a certain age group and are no longer bastions of the ‘elite’ as was the practice decades and centuries ago, so that the vast majority of today's youth can simultaneously process a significantly greater amount of information on a daily basis compared to what elite-university students did decades ago.

This is due to the nature of the information age and the information overload we are all exposed to. Higher enrolment in tertiary education worldwide has come at a time when people are required to deal with a tsunami of data and information – verified or unverified – emerging from all quarters.

Essentially, it means, if quality higher education for all is aa challenge in itself, that challenge is multiplied due to the prevailing information overload in society. If the end goal of education is to learn how to process and use information in one’s life, more and more information, from all possible quarters of credibility, makes the task immensely more difficult.

The paradigm shift

Essentially, the challenge for faculty members on university campuses is what many of us have faced over the years in the classroom – but may not have paid explicit attention to. This challenge also exists more at the basement of the ivory tower, the place most affected by the expansion of higher education.

Simply put, we need students graduating from colleges and universities to be prepared so that they can avoid being in a scenario which makes them feel that every bit of information simply raises more questions. And that needs a sense of context, which helps one place the new information, right or wrong – in a schemata of what’s already known, verified, credible – in the student’s own mind.

Removing one’s biases in interpreting this information, as a mental discipline, is easier said than done.

The trick to doing that may well come from a 17th-century mathematician and philosopher – Blaise Pascal: by using students' own logic and value systems and beliefs to give them a wider perspective than the binary picture existing in their young minds so they can deal with complex issues; or by providing a binary perspective by removing the grey elements where artificial complexities are created.

There is no one-size-fits-all solution here. However, one can imagine a few possible ways to deal with the challenge, namely through more classroom discussions and media exposure. This should not be limited to incidents that happened centuries or decades ago. Coverage of current issues must be brought into the classroom – and if need be, linked to past historical parallels.

Needless to say, the task for universities and university professors is an uphill one, dealing with the post-truth era in an information-overloaded world in the context of ever-expanding enrolments and the pressure to provide quality higher education for all.

As the saying goes: “The road to hell is paved with good intentions”. The objective of quality higher education for all in this challenging environment is not to make everyone an expert of everything, but we should, at least, be able to identify credible and truly expert, balanced voices – and be guided by them, particularly where our individual expertise is of a questionable nature.

That is the basics for any hypothesis testing – be it for university projects or for determining the validity of real world political narratives.

Professor Ranjit Goswami (@RanjiGoswami) is the vice-chancellor of RK University, India.