Can we make Truth great again?
Humanities scholars long sneered at the notion of objective truth. In this post-truth age, that may be changing
Several months into President Donald Trump’s tenure, Union College Professor Robert Samet assigned students a routine book for his Media Anthropology class: War Stories, a seminal study of how American reporters misrepresented El Salvador’s civil war.
His 22 students sat in rows discussing the text. Then, a male, conservative-leaning student began to speak.
“I don’t trust the media,” Samet remembers him saying. “You’ve shown me, right here in this text, how it is that facts get manipulated. I don’t believe now what I’m seeing in the New York Times.”
Another student, a progressive, agreed.
Samet was floored. “What the heck just happened?” he thought. He was trying to help students understand how journalists deliver facts and present reality. Now his teaching methods have revealed that students consider mainstream outlets like the Times as propaganda.
“That’s not the response I was expecting,” Samet said. Then he added: “But it makes perfect sense.”
In the 1980s and 1990s, a wave of humanities and social science scholarship punctured the idea of objective truth. Scholars like Bruno Latour and Donna Haraway traced the ways that the truth wasn’t “out there,” but manufactured by researchers, academics, and journalists. The idea was known as “social constructivism,” or simply postmodernism. It took humanities disciplines like literature, anthropology and some social sciences by storm.
But in the past decade, and more notably since 2016, American political conservatives have unsheathed a bastardized form of social constructivism. Trump aide Kellyanne Conway defended “alternative facts,” while his lawyer Rudy Giuliani has claimed that “truth isn’t truth.” Outraged commentators say we now live in a “post-truth” age, and some have found a culprit for the upheaval: academics. Two recent books, Michiko Kakutani’s The Death of Truth and Lee McIntyre’s Post-Truth both blame “post-modern” academics for helping erode the idea of shared reality. Kakutani writes that the constructivists “paved the way for today’s anti-vaxxers and global warming deniers.” Meanwhile, in The New Yorker alt-right troll Mike Cernovich cited postmodernist theory to defend his online misinformation campaigns.
Academics in the humanities dismiss the idea that they somehow caused global post-truth disruptions. Yet a growing number of them worry about how to teach constructivism in an era where “alternative facts” have become partisan talking points and disbelief in data about climate change and public health is hastening global catastrophe.
The idea that knowledge is shaped by people and politics is likely obvious to most people. What sets social constructivism apart is its focus on how “truth” is related to power. Constructivism is a subtle, rigorous set of ideas. But it has been hard to teach. Students haven’t always absorbed the subtlety, and instead digested a distorted summary: “there is no truth.”
Professor Latour, who helped invent social constructivism in the late 20th century, vocalized these qualms in a famous 2004 essay. “Entire Ph.D. programs are still running to make sure that good American kids are learning the hard way that facts are made up, that there is no such thing as natural, unmediated, unbiased access to truth,” he wrote. “While dangerous extremists are using the very same argument of social construction to destroy hard-won evidence that could save our lives.”
Recovering from his shock of his students’ views of The New York Times, Samet had a similar thought.
“We’re letting students into the world with a worldview that can become deeply cynical very, very quickly,” he said. “I think most of our students just get to that point. And that’s where we abandon them.”
Colten White, 22, a senior studying English and Education at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, had a similar experience with cynicism. When he first began studying social-constructivist literature, his interpretation echoed Samet’s students.
“I certainly had overly simplistic views of critiquing realism,” he said. “I had perhaps overly pessimistic views about our ability to know empirical reality.”
He says it took time and deeper study to recognize empirical reality more strongly. While White doesn’t blame constructivist professors for the “post-truth” moment, he does agree that some academics have been careless with constructivist language. And that carelessness may have had an impact.
“Before the last couple of years, I think [academics would] say ‘there’s no real impact to someone misconstruing what I’m saying.’ I think the last couple of years has shown that there is,” White said.
There are signs that professors are beginning to take their role in the “post-truth” environment more seriously.
Natalia Roudakova is an anthropologist who studies the decline of truth in modern Russia. Just a few years ago, she said, this made her an outsider among her colleagues because she treated “truth” as a positive thing, something to be defended. When she would tell colleagues about her research, they used to immediately default to constructivist talking points.
“Colleagues would say, ‘Well, what do you mean by truth? What kind of truth? Whose truth?’ ” Roudakova said. But once the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign got underway, and “fake news” became a household term, Roudakova said her colleagues began to understand her research. The idea of “truth” as something to take seriously began to make sense to them.
Professor Latour, one of the founding fathers of constructivism, sees its study as a tool to help society move beyond the post-truth era. In a new book, Down to Earth, he writes that “truth” appears broken because most citizens have lost touch with the institutions that produce facts. To repair trust, he says, it’s not enough to tell people they are wrong. “It is not a matter of learning how to repair cognitive deficiencies, but rather of how to live in the same world, share the same culture, face up to the same stakes,” he wrote.
Back in the classroom, Samet is busy revising his teaching methods to cope with a cynical mindset among students.
He’s added material from Roudakova’s new book, Losing Pravda, as a way for them to see how Russians dealt with their own social meltdowns in the last decade.
He’s now teaching with a new goal in mind: “To steer students away from that kind of cynical reading of media and of the world around them.”
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