President Cornwell on the Assault Against Facts in Today’s World

In a recent op-ed for the Orlando Sentinel, President Grant Cornwell says it’s more important than ever to pursue truth and facts.

Students in communications professor David Painter’s The Truth About Fake News course learn how to identify fake news and understand the psychology driving the demand for it. (Photo by Scott Cook) Students in communications professor David Painter’s The Truth About Fake News course learn how to identify fake news and understand the psychology driving the demand for it. (Photo by Scott Cook)

In a recent Pew Research Center study, nearly eight in 10 Americans said that when it comes to important issues facing the country, most Republican and Democratic voters not only disagree over plans and policies, but also cannot agree on basic facts.

Our current cultural moment has raised an urgent question: What is the role of higher education when the ideas of truth, facts, and core principles of justice seem up for grabs?

In today’s culture, I see a smug, perhaps even sinister, disregard for the value of truth and its pursuit with integrity. Maybe worse, I see a cavalier disposition toward facts, as though they are things that can be selected or even created according to one’s preference and politics.

This is where the university—with its core principles of freedom of inquiry and expression, and its capacity to educate graduates with the independent and critical acumen to deliberate about all manner of issues—plays a critical role.

After all, the term “liberal” in the context of “liberal arts” is not a reference to political values. Rather, it comes from the Latin, Artes Liberales, an education in personal liberty or freedom. It is an education not in what to think but how to think. A liberally educated person is equipped and empowered to make up their own mind, not subject to the authority of others, not easily swayed by charlatans.

At Rollins College, I want our students to know that certain things are the case, not simply know how to exercise intellectual skills. Again, the intellectual skills we embrace as learning goals—information literacy, critical thinking, ethical reasoning, mathematical thinking, and scientific literacy—are exactly the tools we would select to combat the abuses of a post-truth era.

In addition, I’m suggesting that students need to graduate with more than knowing how, but also knowing that. A global citizen and responsible leader should know the facts about climate change, the global distribution of wealth, the history of democracy and capitalism and the tension between the two, and the variety of human meaning-making in the form of religions, arts, literatures, and philosophies.

One of the books influencing my thinking is Factfulness by the late Swedish scientist Hans Rosling. He writes that there are important, large-scale global trends—facts, if you will—backed by considerable, reliable evidence. We don’t often hear about these trends because they don’t appeal to the appetite for sensational news or conform to popular opinion.

In Rosling’s view, our post-truth culture is missing the virtue of objectivity—and the antidote is adopting a “fact-based worldview.”

Higher-education leaders should strive to send graduates into the world as global citizens and responsible leaders, knowing certain facts about the world: natural scientific facts, social scientific facts, historical facts, and even a category I would call social-justice facts.

We also owe this commitment to the world our students are entering. A liberal arts education is a significant social investment. All those who make it possible have every right to expect that the investment will produce social value, good not only for the student, but for the world.

President Cornwell’s op-ed originally appeared in the Orlando Sentinel