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GRAPHIC:  Also in every issueFrom the President
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 to do.

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 (Derek Bok).

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 our politics.

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.



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