Truth is in trouble these days. Everywhere we go we find evidence about the precariousness of any sense of the relevance of truth. Students in our classrooms come expecting to continue to learn that there is no final truth. One student, explaining her undergraduate program, told me their classes would vote on what version of the past they would accept. I quietly asked what would it mean if two different classes, voting on the same issue, would vote in different ways; she had never thought about this. I have given readings about historical events or contemporary issues with varying interpretations and asked students to sort it out. Some do, some don’t, and others throw up their hands in despair, reverting to a sense of accepting any sense of truth (or wanting me to tell them what is the proper perspective). At least once I had a student ask, “What is truth?” apparently expecting that I could not answer the question. But I did have an answer, although it would not satisfy the student or her colleagues. We act like truth is still in play, although it is not the Truth of a half-century ago when it was the baseline or parameters for everything from statecraft to journalistic work. Now, no one is ever quite sure what anything means.
The university where I work has the motto “Veritas and Virtus,” truth and virtue, but there are many, students, faculty, and administrators, who seem not to know this. Or, if they do, they simply see such mottos as antiquated products of the ancient origins of universities (hey, why else is the motto in Latin). Universities are beset by many ethical, moral, and legal problems, exaggerated often by efforts to avoid having to deal with such complicated issues (although sometimes the issues are not really that complicated, but only made to seem this way by how the issues are dealt with). Athletics get the most publicity these days, such as with Penn State’s football child abuse case or the Duke Lacrosse team rape case, but the problems go much deeper, with extraordinary amounts of money involved and strong alumni groups often running the show (with academics taking a distant back seat). Getting less public attention is research fraud, but given the massive amounts of money involved these days, money has moved to the forefront and when one attends a meeting about research opportunities it is often about money possibilities. What some universities have gotten expert at is in either cover-ups or in wrapping up the cases in academic double-speak (not a good role model for students and others).
The issue is not the question of whether the truth exists or not, but it is that, even in this so-called Information Age, it is that truth is difficult to find or to discern. Journalist Charles Lewis, in his book 935 Lies: The Future of Truth and the Decline of America’s Moral Integrity (New York: Public Affairs, 2014), has tackled the relevance or demise of truth in the government, corporate, and news sectors, stating, among other things, “Truth delayed is truth denied. When the facts are bottled up by secrecy and deception, it means that the public and its elected representation can do nothing to prevent or reverse abuses. And it often means that officials responsible for misconduct are never held accountable for their actions, including their misleading comments to the US Congress and to the public.” (p. 98). Indeed, Lewis calls for a new area of academic studies, Accountability Studies, in universities. Accountability implies, of course, some understanding of the importance or relevance of truth. If we are to have investigative journalism, decent historical analyses, and governmental fact-finding reports, we have to recommit to the idea of truth.
This issue of truth is especially relevant for me. My area of expertise is archival studies, preparing masters students to work as archivists, professionals who deal with evidence and information. One of the fundamental themes in this archives program is the value of records for evidence, accountability, and memory; truth permeates through all of this. This may seem problematic, given that postmodernist-flavored scholarship often seems to refute the existence of truth as an important concept. Such scholarship has played a useful role in leading to greater understanding of records, their role in society, and the significance of archives. From my vantage, the issue is that there is truth in records, but that that truth is sometimes difficult to ascertain, one that even leads to more questions than answers (fitting well with the idea that real education prepares individuals to deal with ambiguity and new challenges). And, the postmodernist-tinged scholarship also emphasizes the archivists’ function of ascertaining the reliability of records for revealing past actions.
We must remember that all the claims about the power of information and value of having access to it is of little use if truth is a casualty. The Web is full of misinformation, but who cares if we have no concept of what is real or unreal. We hear wild exaggerated claims about and by political candidates, and we are prey to such statements if we discount the relevance of the truth (political debates become reality TV, which, in fact, is what has happened). Corporations constantly doctor their books and present false claims about everything from their profits to the societal impacts of their products, but why worry if we lack any gauge for assessing their validity. Even universities are increasingly scrutinized about charges of research fraud, cover-ups of athletic scandals, and other such problems. It is time, of course, for us to re-embrace the notion of truth and its utility, from the classroom to the corporate boardroom.
Doing this won’t be easy, as it requires us to buck the trends so prevalent in today’s society. If we don’t start soon, as individuals, we will be lost. The debates about global climate warning ought to inform us of the dangerous path we are now on. Despite considerable scientific evidence, many politicians and social pundits, for a variety of reasons, deny that global warming is something real; instead, it is characterized as a conspiracy — or worse. However, it is not worth trying to engage in this debate if evidence is not important or relevant to the substance of the debate. Again, from my perspective, why would anybody want to be an archivist who does not believe in the value of evidence; after all, why would we need to keep records if no one ever plans to consult them and wrestle with the evidence they provide. Yet, scholars and others keep going to archival sources and, this gives me hope that there is flickering trust in truth. We can build from there.