Truth or consequences
President Don Michael Randel
discusses a principle that’s fundamental to higher education—and
life as we need to know it.
The University of Chicago offers the best education in this or any
neighboring galaxy. But to do so we rely on a few things that we
all should have learned from a caring grown-up by the time we hit
kindergarten. Among them, You should always tell the truth.
Unfortunately, the truth is in some trouble these
days. Much of the recent debate in national affairs has concerned
whether the American people (and the world) have been told the truth
about, among other things, international threats, the U.S. economy,
the condition of Social Security, the cost of health care, and the
global energy supply.
The University insists that it does not teach
you what to think but how to think. That is, we aim to provide the
tools with which any individual might try to discover the truth.
But not everyone possesses, or even believes in, these tools. This
fact is especially clear in encounters with those who believe that
the fundamental truths are revealed in a realm beyond human reason—and
who believe that those truths justify manipulating or obscuring
the truths that are well within the reach of intelligent human beings.
Such fundamentalism exists in sacred and secular versions of all
types, and, indeed, secular fundamentalisms may be the most dangerous,
for they may be harder to recognize. This is where the tools we
teach and the spirit of inquiry we value have very serious work
One might hope that modern science would be the
domain in which agreement could best be reached. Yet very serious
scientists report efforts by the current administration and others
to distort or deny widely accepted scientific results. It’s
not that “scientific truth” is wholly and immutably
independent of culture and ideology. This interdependency, too,
is a matter worth discussing. But Chicago has a huge stake in whether
the tools and principles we live by are allowed to be undermined
for political or other gains.
We must, of course, guard against our own complicity,
making certain we ourselves do not have conflicts of commitment
to the truth. Much is said these days about the degree to which
outside sponsorship of university research has the potential to
corrupt that science for the sake of financial gain to the universities
or to individual investigators. The concern forms part of a tradition,
going back at least a century and to our own Thorstein Veblen, that
sees universities as steadily falling under the corrupting influence
of business or the marketplace. Recent books on the topic have titles
like The University in a Corporate Culture (Eric Gould),
Ivy and Industry: Business and the Making of the American University,
1880–1980 (Christopher Newfield), and Universities
in the Marketplace: The Commercialization of Higher Education
These influences deserve fuller discussion on
another occasion. At a minimum it is important to avoid name-calling.
Business, profit, and market are not
inherently bad words. Universities create value in the form of ideas,
discoveries, and the educated people who produce more ideas and
discoveries. And universities collect money from many sources in
return, which is not in and of itself bad so long as the quality
of the debate in universities remains high and vigorous and thus
resistant to corrosion. Corrosion can proceed equally from right
and left, and we cannot allow ourselves to be complacent, whatever
For now, in an election year, one cannot help
but be troubled by the quality of the national debate. One wonders
how the American voter comes to decide what constitutes the truth.
The media, whether viewed from right or left, are not much help,
especially those outlets reaching the greatest numbers of people.
It appears that, for most people, repetition is the primary factor
in establishing the truth, which makes establishing the truth as
much a function of money as of anything else. Indeed, one reads
daily about the effects of money, especially large quantities of
money, on political campaigns.
If the power to persuade belongs primarily to
those with enough money to repeat their views to the greatest numbers,
then the “truth” will increasingly belong to the rich—something
to worry about in a country where wealth is concentrated in fewer
and fewer hands.
What it all comes back to is the importance
of education at all levels. Primary and secondary education need
to produce a public that is in some degree informed and able to
ask intelligent questions. Higher education needs to produce a citizenry
that truly does have the tools with which to pursue truth and ward
off untruth in relation to difficult, complicated matters. Universities
are our best hope for enabling a public discourse in which ideas
are tested and mere repetition and name-calling do not carry the
day. Such discourse is an article of faith at Chicago, even when
the result makes us and our friends uncomfortable. But that discourse
really does depend on whether someone taught us early on that, as
a matter of principle, we ought to tell the truth.