Friday, January 27, 2017

Higher Education in The 'Post-Truth' World

'Post-Truth' was the international word for the year 2016 for the OED. And, 2017 is firmly entrenching the idea, with 'alternative facts' being the modus operandi of the new Trump administration. The point is, as Britain's Michael Gove put it in one iconic TV debate, the world may have lost faith in Expertise.

I recently heard one Vice-Chancellor of a great UK university reflect on this. He was wondering what should the academic profession do, when no one cares for facts or expertise any more. Surely, the search for truth and primacy of expertise is at the heart of modern Higher Education. Does this new turn make Higher Education irrelevant altogether?

The case he was making is for a new engagement with the world. This is the prevalent view in much of the academia. The case for 'academic diplomacy' is being made. Some scientists in the United States are signing up to be in politics, so that their voice is heard. The thrust of the argument is to end the 'ivory tower' existence of the academia and take a more communicative role in public affairs.

However, one should question whether the 'ivory tower' actually exists at all. Is it correct to say that the experts did not engage in public affairs? Or, is it the opposite - that they were an integral part of the modern state, and if anything changed, it is that they have lost credibility because of their engagement, rather than for being disengaged? The case for expertise might already have been made, and lost.

One could see the problem in the word itself, 'Post-Truth'. It assumes existence of an incontrovertible truth, of a 'fact'. And, the tone of this expression is complaining - that the world has lost its bearing and lost sight of this 'truth'. But is that what really happened?

The way of recent politics, the fanaticism, the trumph of style over substance, the tendency to state first and explore later, is a real assault on our ideas of integrity, decency and responsibility. But, was 'truth' part of our lives, whose passing we should mourn? For example, for every research that one could cite in favour of eating eggs, there is another pouring evidence against eating eggs. Larry Lessig does a great job of looking at research, sector by sector, for not what they are saying, but for the connection between what they are saying with who they were funded by. 'Post-Truth' may be how the academicians would love to describe today's attitude as, but, from the other side, it may as well be the age 'after illusion'.

One could claim that we are replacing benignly bad illusions with malignant ones. However, there is a bigger problem about this idea of 'truth' itself. Inherent in the 'Post-Truth' claim is the existence of an objective truth, which experts have earned a right to. However, as we have discovered even in the natural sciences, any knowledge is almost always provisional. Anything we know is defined by the current boundaries of knowledge, and it is therefore subjective, and based on what the individuals at this point knew or did not know. And, often-times, this limit of knowledge is not just epochal, but spatial - imagine all the Darwinian debates being conducted without knowledge of the work of the unknown Czech monk, Gregor Mendel - and linguistic and cultural too. Stated another way, this claim to 'Truth' is based on an attitude informed by science, that truth exists independently in an impersonal sphere.

I shall claim that 'Post-Truth' is a symptom of the malaise of Higher Education and the academia, rather than the world going mad. It arises not because of disengagement, but an arrogant engagement, and its solution does not lie in 'academic diplomacy' but in a different form of engagement. And, inside the 'Post-Truth', there is a 'technological world-view' that sees the world of men and resources being guided by a higher purpose defined by experts, lacking the humility that makes such an engagement plausible. And, finally, the solution lies in reappraising the role of the humanities - as the idea of humanities isn't defined by 'truth' but by engagement by its very nature - which would bring into the public sphere the key ideas we are missing - those of integrity, decency and responsibility.

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