The Collegiate Crisis of Truth

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Truth: the obsession of philosophy, the aim of academia, the grounding force of our lives. If your life before college was anything like mine, you grew up thinking you knew everything, or at least something. That minute glimpse of the world—learned through lived experiences, teachers, and parents—was true. God was like this, history was like this, and you were like this. Yes, you may not have understood everything there was to understand, but what you knew, you knew.

If your college experience was anything like mine, this changed.

College is supposed to impart knowledge, to stretch and grow the mind. Yet, more than anything, higher education makes you understand that you know nothing. And still, it leaves you searching for truth.

This happens differently for different people. It might be a young Baptist student from Georgia or a devout Catholic girl from New Jersey sitting in on the Belief in Modernity course taught by Rev. Michael Himes, which explores Darwin and Nietzsche, and watching their understanding of God and a religious life crumble before them. It might be a staunchly Republican sophomore in Rights in Conflict examining the core of his political beliefs and seeing it wither away. Or it might be more subtle than that.

Maybe it is the homophobic student whose roommate comes out to him, and he begins to understand—even defend—him. The girl who thinks her life’s mission is to become a doctor, but finds she hates biology and loves international relations.

Whatever it may be, exposure to this diversity of thought and life challenges our core and our values. We are then forced to re-assess and re-learn ourselves. And just as we begin to accept and understand the challenge, another challenge presents itself.

This crisis of truth continues in the classroom. In political science, for example, students encounter a variety of theories to explain a single phenomenon—social movements, state behavior, or nuclear proliferation, for example. The minds that create these theories are brilliant, the best of the best. And yet, each theory, which makes perfect sense, contradicts the other. The world is no longer black and white.

Thanks to the common core, students explore courses in their majors and others they would never consider taking. In high school, we understand what we are told, and we take it at face value. But here, after taking a variety of courses under a variety of brilliant professors with a variety of different biases, sometimes these “truths” contradict each other.

Already undergoing all of those previously mentioned life-shattering, value-challenging dilemmas this semester, I came to realize that the last thing that I counted on—the black and white facts of history—also weren’t so simple.

It was while sitting in Himes’ Belief in Modernity that my crisis of truth finally came to full fruition. But this time it wasn’t Darwin or Nietzsche challenging my view of God, it was what the professor said about history.

“To me, the Renaissance didn’t start in the 14th century.” He went on to explain his reasoning, but I could no longer listen. Here he was, one of the most brilliant professors under whom I’ve had the privilege of learning, challenging a commonly accepted date, a fact. A date I’ve learned in my art history courses, European history courses, photography courses—something that was so clearly true. Yet, Himes’s counter-explanation made perfect sense.

At a university, we have the very core of our existence challenged—from our personal values to our understanding of how the world operates, everything is fair game. We learn opposing “facts” from a variety of different brilliant thinkers. Our knowledge becomes null and void, a simple matter of opinion. Even science, the one subject that seems to be true when all else fails, is evolving. A portion of what we learn about science will eventually be discovered to be erroneous.

We can’t know God, we can’t even truly know ourselves, science and history are out … so how do we deal with this crisis of truth?
The Socratic paradox states, “I am the wisest man alive, for I know one thing, and that is that I know nothing.” And yet, Socrates and his teacher still toil to know more than just nothing—they still seek Truth.

So, maybe we should do as Socrates did and embrace this crisis. Maybe it doesn’t matter that there isn’t just one single answer to a question, one single right. Instead, we become active thinkers, analyzing every visible perspective, weighing the strengths and weaknesses of each bias. The lack of answers and the growing number of questions can be frustrating, but this also makes life exciting. It means our knowledge is never complete—we are never fully finished as people. We will continually grow and discover ourselves—we can always seek and pursue knowledge.

Like Socrates, just keep seeking.

If you have any tips on how to confront a crisis of truth, or any true solid facts you would like to share, please direct any and all help to your columnist.

Featured Image by Kevin Hou / Heights Senior Staff

About Delphina Gerber-Williams 6 Articles
Delphina Gerber-Williams has been a staff Opinions columnist for The Heights since September 2014. She is a member of the Class of 2015 in the College of Arts and Science studying political science.