Tuesday, February 19, 2019

The Truth is Out There


The Truth is Out There

I recently visited the Greenwich Observatory. At the gate there is a clock showing the official Greenwich Meridian Time along with a set of markers indicating the standards for the lengths of a yard, two feet, one foot, six inches, and one inch. It is a monument to facts for which we no longer accept alternates.

One of the great promises of the rise of modern higher education and then the digital age was the democratization of knowledge, but failing information literacy is quickly becoming a threat to our understanding of truth and our trust in what we know.

For centuries, information was held tightly by those in power, including those in the academy. Colleges and universities had the books, data collections, and scientific instruments, and they housed and trained those who knew how to interpret and use them. Preserving our hold on information and enhancing these holdings made us relevant to those whose power and wealth made our work possible. This principle is at the heart a quote from John Adams to which I regularly return:

The poor people, it is true, have been much less successful than the great. They have seldom found either leisure or opportunity to form a union and exert their strength; ignorant as they were of arts and letters, they have seldom been able to frame and support a regular opposition. This, however, has been known by the great to be the temper of mankind; and they have accordingly labored, in all ages, to wrest from the populace, as they are contemptuously called, the knowledge of their rights and wrongs, and the power to assert the former or redress the latter. I say RIGHTS, for such they have, undoubtedly, antecedent to all earthly government, — Rights, that cannot be repealed or restrained by human laws -- Rights, derived from the great Legislator of the universe.[1]

Higher education in the United States has increased those who have access to knowledge, all too slowly, but the tent has expanded over time. Oberlin College opened in 1833 and accepted African-American students from its founding; Mary Lyons founded Mount Holyoke College in 1837, providing baccalaureate education for women; and Oberlin became co-educational in 1838. The Morrill Land-Grant Act provided resources for the creation of public flagship universities across the quickly expanding nation. The GI Bill flooded our campuses following WWII and launched a rapid growth in higher education. The Higher-Education Act of 1965 finally created the support necessary to make a college education possible for the nation’s citizenry.

By 1952, there were 1 million students enrolled in private higher-education institutions in the U.S. and an equal number in publics. By the beginning of this century, that number had grown to 3 million students in private colleges and universities and 13 million in publics.

There has been no greater impact on our growth as a democratic society than this diversification and expansion of a learnéd populace. The digital age had such promise to extend and, one day, complete that trajectory. The freeing of information from temples of learning and the creation of new pathways of instruction and research have all been boons, but we have reached a dangerous crossroads.

Two of the treasured principles of the academy have been the reproducibility of experiments and peer review of research. These have provided critically important safeguards against quackery and chicanery. The best principles of the media have been modelled upon these traditions: the dependence upon multiple sources and the vetting of those sources and the information they have provided.

The danger of the Information Age is the difficulty in discerning the sources and veracity of information that are all too perilously accessible. This is why we teach information literacy.

I used to tell my students that when I was in their place, I was lucky to find 4 or 5 sources to support my research, and it took weeks or more. They have nearly instantaneous access to hundreds of thousands of potential sources, but it is likely that there will still be only 4 or 5 legitimate needles in their data haystack. One of the most important skills we strive to develop within our students is the ability to identify and corroborate those needles of truth.

We have recently seen other world powers directing media campaigns to shape public opinion in the United States. There are innumerable internal threats eroding our confidence in the information we encounter, which has led some in power to gain plausibility among their audiences to dismiss accurate reports as part of the unreliable chaff of the Information Age.

Truth remains inviolate: one foot is one foot. For this fact, we have a fixed source, but we must be vigilant for increasingly adept imposters in our consumption of more complex information from divergent sources. The same skills we instill on our campuses related to research need to be applied to all of our interactions with digital media.

We have the tools to truly democratize knowledge in the coming generation, but only if we prepare ourselves to be effective navigators in a sea of information that grows more treacherous by the second with rising tides of unfiltered content and proliferating flotsam intentionally placed along our route.

The truth is out there, and we have never needed higher education more to prepare us to recognize it.


[1] From John Adams: A Dissertation on Canon and Feudal Law, 1765.

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