“This is true.” So begins “How to Tell a True War Story,” by Tim O’Brien, Macalester Class of 1968. It remains one of the greatest short stories ever written, in part because of its nuanced exploration of the relationship between fiction and nonfiction, memory and reality, lived and imagined experience. The nature of truth is revealed to be deeply complex.

I suspect, however, that Tim would not dispute the fact that Vietnam is located in Asia or that thousands of Americans died during the Vietnam War.

Poets and philosophers have for millennia pondered what it means for a thing to be “true.” Aristotle wrote in his Metaphysics that “to say of what is that it is not, or of what is not that it is, is false, while to say of what is that it is, and of what is not that it is not, is true.” (Got that?) Empiricists and Rationalists slugged it out over the definition of truth for centuries. And I’m still trying to figure out what Keats meant when he wrote that “Beauty is truth, truth beauty.” I’m not sure that I ever will, and I’m not sure that it matters.

But virtually all of these reflections start with the foundational assumption that there are certain verifiable facts upon which all can agree. Absent this assumption, it becomes impossible even to begin the more substantive debates about what “truth” really means. We can only explore what truth means to the veterans of the Vietnam War if we begin by agreeing that the war actually happened. It only makes sense to talk about what Keats meant in “Ode on a Grecian Urn” if we accept the premise that he—and not, say, Stephen King—wrote it.

Lately, however, we have entered dangerous new territory within which even the most basic truths have become problematic. Did I say what I just said? Is 350 greater than 300?

Is the first line of this essay “This is true”? When the answer to these questions becomes“it depends” or “that’s your opinion” or “I say otherwise and some people agree with me,” we have moved beyond the world of Tim O’Brien into a world unimagined even in the darkest fever dreams of George Orwell.

The causes of our crisis are not hard to find. Within the endless, dispiriting landscape of the Internet, one can find not just alternative facts, but alternative universes. Social media make it possible to surround oneself with noise and insulate oneself from sense. The more extreme forms of postmodern relativism severely damaged the idea of expertise and called into question the common sense of the academy.

We have been for some time teetering on the edge of a complete loss of accepted truths and complete indifference to the sticky inescapable facts. It took only an unprecedented amount of shamelessness and cynicism, mixed with a dollop of sheer ignorance, to push us over the edge.

To say that this represents a threat to the work of education is an understatement. Whether one is teaching a first grader that 2+2=4 or teaching a college student how to grapple with James Joyce’s Ulysses, the roots of complex thinking are buried deep in the soil of demonstrable fact: of science, of history, of mathematics. What is the value of learning the chemical composition of the atmosphere or the timeline of the American Revolution if an acceptable response is “says you”?

Was my birth a good or a bad thing? Debatable. Was I born on May 29? Not debatable.

Is Macalester better than Carleton? Debatable. Is Macalester located in St. Paul? Not debatable.

Is violent crime a major threat to the United States? Debatable. Has the violent crime rate declined over the past 30 years? Not debatable.

If we lose sight of these distinctions, if we cannot ground our public discourse and our search for a better world in an agreement that facts matter, we are lost. The technical wizards have done a miraculous job of flooding us with information, and the bloggers and media spinners have figured out how to use all that information to make us less knowledgeable and more malleable. We can only hope that the poets and philosophers will catch up and, as they always have, help us to be wiser. Right now we might need the next Aristotle or Keats far more than we need the next Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg.

This is true.

June 1 2017

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