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The Value of Liberal Education in a Post-Truth Era
This past summer, I found myself in Hamburg, Germany, at a global forum on the role of universities in society, at which I had the pleasure of serving on a panel discussing the impact of the current political climate on American higher education. The final question to the panelists was to identify a politician, living or dead, with whom we would most like to have a conversation regarding the challenges we are facing in higher education. I chose Abraham Lincoln, who lived at the most extreme moment of polarization in our nation’s history, and who, despite the backdrop of the raging Civil War, signed a bill making higher education available to the general public. The Morrill Act of 1862, which has profoundly influenced the landscape of higher education, was followed a year later by the creation of the National Academy of Sciences to promote science, engineering, and medicine as central to the progress of our society. Lincoln recognized, perhaps better than anyone, that if a nation is to thrive, it must advance the public purpose of higher education by investing in colleges and universities as the foundation for individual and societal transformation.
The public purpose of higher education, however, has been obscured amid widespread criticism regarding escalating college costs, the return on investment, and campus cultures. Thus, over the past year and a half, the Association of American Colleges and Universities has been implementing a comprehensive strategic plan (aacu.org/about/strategicplan) centered on restoring public trust in the promise of liberal education and inclusive excellence. The plan seeks to create an ascendant narrative that contests accusations of irrelevancy and illegitimacy leveled against higher education, in general, and liberal education, in particular. Moreover, it constitutes a collective call to action to make visible the transformative power of colleges and universities. For those of us who believe that higher education is inextricably linked to the mission of educating for democracy, this work is more urgent than ever. We are living in an ostensibly post-truth era, characterized by the denial of authoritative knowledge and the disdain for experts, and in which rational inquiry built on evidence has all but been abandoned.
AAC&U’s 2019 annual meeting, “Raising Our Voices: Reclaiming the Narrative on the Value of Higher Education,” served as an enjoinder to all leaders in higher education—faculty, staff, students, alumni, and administrators—to collectively reaffirm the role that a liberal education plays in discerning the truth; the ways in which it serves as a catalyst for interrogating the sources of narratives, including history, evidence, and facts; the ways in which a liberal education promotes an understanding that the world is a collection of interdependent yet inequitable systems; the ways in which it expands knowledge of human interactions, privilege, and stratification; and the ways in which higher education fosters equity and justice, locally and globally.
The inextricable link between liberal education and the imperative of educating for democracy was highlighted throughout the conference, from Kwame Anthony Appiah’s opening address on the meaning, purpose, and overarching value of liberal learning to journalist Linda Greenhouse’s closing plenary on “The Role of Journalism in Preserving, Undermining, and Reclaiming the Narrative of American Society,” which built off of her engaging memoir, Just a Journalist: On the Press, Life, and the Spaces Between.
Greenhouse directly confronts the question of what role journalists should play as citizens and as purveyors of the truth. Positing reader empowerment as the highest goal of journalism, Greenhouse maintains that in this post-truth era it is not enough simply to report what has happened. Instead, she insists, readers need context about events leading up to what happened and about “why it happened, and what might come next.”1 Indeed, Greenhouse, a veteran Supreme Court reporter, contends that “the opposite of objectivity isn’t partisanship, or needn’t be. Rather, it is judgment, the hard work of sorting out the false claims from the true and discarding or at least labeling the false.”2 Throughout her book, Greenhouse details the perils of a “he said, she said” approach to journalism, grounded in the tenet that two sides to every story must be reported if objectivity is to be preserved. She notes, “When ‘he said, she said’ journalism takes hold on a particularly contentious issue, it can distort or even shut down the kind of public debate that is critical in a democratic society.”3 For Greenhouse, participation in the mechanics of citizenship requires providing citizens with the information necessary to make informed choices, which, at times, mandates prioritizing the pursuit of truth over striving for balance.
The same holds for higher education. As Phi Beta Kappa’s Secretary Frederick M. Lawrence demonstrates in his piece, “For the Love of Learning,” while addressing certain issues might itself seem partisan, nonpartisan advocacy is possible when it involves endorsing a set of ideals central to the mission of the institution or organization. American colleges and universities share a fundamental mission of knowledge creation and education for work, citizenship, and life. As our nation becomes increasingly polarized, institutions of higher education have a greater obligation to ensure that our institutional structures, curricula, and systems of shared governance are fulfilling the promise of educating for democracy. The authors in this issue, writing alongside Lawrence, each offer avenues for making clear the value of colleges and universities in ways that thwart the politics of identity and ideology that have served to undermine the pursuit of truth in contemporary discourse, and we are grateful for their contributions.—Lynn Pasquerella
1. Linda Greenhouse, Just a Journalist: On the Press, Life, and the Spaces Between (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2017), 128.
2. Greenhouse, Just a Journalist, 62.
3. Greenhouse, Just a Journalist, 46.