Faith and Learning in a Post-Truth World



American colleges and universities, along with American culture in general, have entered a new post- truth era. In responding to this new environment, colleges and universities might benefit from a more comprehensive engagement with religion and its complex understanding of truth. The model for engagement proposed here focuses on five educational functions of religion: proclamation, rationality, compassion, transformation, and wonder/mystery. Using this model can enhance learning for students across the religious spectrum, including spiritual and non-religious individuals, as well as those who are traditionally religious, while respecting the norms of academic and religious freedom.

The 2016 Word of the Year selected by the editors of the Oxford Dictionaries was post-truth, defined as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief” (Oxford Dictionaries, 2016). The term came to prominence in connection with Donald Trump’s presidential campaign and his penchant for making assertions at his rallies that seemed disconnected from any factual foundation. His supporters seemed totally unconcerned with this lack of evidence. They liked what Donald Trump said because his description of America rang subjectively true for them and that was enough. Even if Trump’s statements were not grounded in facts, they were deemed to be more truthful at an emotional and affective level than the so-called “fake news” being disseminated by the mainstream media.

Post-Truthing and American Higher Education

The post-truth ways of thinking, believing, and behaving that became evident during the election cycle might have surprised many Americans, but it most likely did not shock people who work with college and university students. Some students have been post-truthing their way through higher education for years.

They study for their classes, giving professors the answers they think those professors want to hear, but in their private lives they maintain their own idiosyncratic and unexamined emotional truths and proudly remain unaffected by their college or universities studies (Nichols, 2017).

The disjuncture between truth as it has been traditionally construed and truth as it now functions in the realms of politics (and among some students) has many sources, but it is at least partly the result of changes in the way higher education itself construes truth. During much of the twentieth century, higher education was committed to a conception of objectivity in the pursuit of truth, and academicians assumed their students (and everyone else) would simply accept the evidence-based, well-reasoned opinions of knowledge experts in various fields of study. According to this modernist perspective, objective knowledge equaled truth, and objective knowledge was understood to represent the world as it really is.

During the closing decades of the twentieth century, this neat and tidy modernist vision of truth began to unravel as it became increasingly evident that expert opinions often contained hidden biases and unexamined assumptions. Total objectivity was revealed to be a myth, and truth became in the view of many intellectuals those opinions that possessed the most power to make themselves heard and enforced. The scholars who pushed the academy beyond its modernist confidence probably did not intend to promote the post-truth culture that is visible today, but their efforts nonetheless paved the way for its development.

The consumer mentality that now dominates American culture seems to have completed the post- truthing of higher education. According to this consumerist paradigm, student happiness and satisfaction are among the most important criteria for assessing both curricular and cocurricular programming (Billups, 2008). While universities should not be criticized for wanting graduates to have warm feelings toward their alma maters, this legitimate goal sometimes mutates into a paralyzing fear of offending students in any way, lest their enthusiasm for the school waver. This concern can translate into an aversion to challenging what students believe and how they think. The result of this failure to engage students in deep personal reflection can prevent them from fully pursuing truth or even attempting to understand what truth, facts, and reality might be.

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Authors Douglas Jacobsen and Rhonda Hustedt Jacobsen further discuss "Faith and Learning in a Post-Truth World" on the Journal of College and Character blog, "What are Important Challenges to Connecting Faith & Learning in College? Critical Conversations #13."