Why it is Hard to Find Truth in Academia

These days I spend a good deal of my time in the university talking with students who are both philosophical skeptics and advocates for “social justice.” As a teacher, I feel compelled to try to explain how the first commitment undermines the second. Though my contribution is not always welcome, I foolishly persist in making it.

So I tell them if you are someone interested in righting wrongs and seeing justice done, you might want to think twice about being a philosophical skeptic, i.e. someone who believes that “we all have our own truth,” and that there is no objective truth. Why? Well, if there is no truth, no objective reality independent of individual perceptions, then there is no injustice either, as the political philosopher Norman Geras observed some years ago. You can’t claim one minute that all truth is subjective and then the next minute claim to have been wronged and expect anyone to believe you if they too live by your philosophy. By that philosophy, anything you say is just your “take” on it, just your story, and which could be told differently. You were raped? I don’t think so; that’s just your reality. There was a Holocaust? Nah, that’s just one way to look at it. Everyone has his or her “own truth” and so why is the Nazi truth any less valid than anyone else’s? You can’t claim to be a philosophical skeptic and then turn around and say “Well, obviously there is injustice in the world.” No, there are no more facts that are not interpretations. That’s no longer an option if there is no truth “out there,” beyond subjective perception.

Of course such relativism doesn’t mean “truth” goes unclaimed. It certainly does, only instead of being determined by the honest attempt to find it in reality, what actually occurred or how things actually are, it is instead determined by whoever has the power to get their preferred version of reality—the one that allows them to get what they want—imposed on everyone else.

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We have minds and the purpose of our minds is to know the truth. The most dangerous thing we can do, as Fr. Schall has perfectly put it, is to “doubt the capacity of our mind to know and to state, as true, what it knows.” Skepticism is not just a philosophical failure, but also an ethical failure. It lacks the virtue of courage. By refusing to use our mind to know and to state, as true, what it knows, we open the door to all kinds of horrors.

Skepticism is a plague on the universities, where I spend most of my time, and where most of my time there is spent fighting it. Today university students are led into or confirmed in their skepticism by my colleagues, often the very same professors who claim society is overflowing with obvious injustices. So why would these smart people be so unconcerned with such philosophical incoherence? To make sense of it you have to realize that the universities today in the main serve more as re-education camps than as universities. Skepticism might be untrue, but it is useful to the goal of convincing students to embrace a secular humanist perspective. Once you convince someone that there is no truth it is much easier to convince them of “your own truth,” i.e. ideology.

In the case of professors in most of the social sciences and across the humanities, the vision offered is of a fallen world, riddled with preferred injustices (some are highlighted, others ignored), but one capable of redemption, and indeed exaltation, through science, technology, state power and of course, plenty of “education.” In the secular humanist dispensation, we will save ourselves from ourselves without any assistance from God, who we don’t need, and who in any case probably doesn’t exist.

Students are, of course, not encouraged to voice any skepticism about the false promises of secular humanism, and in this they follow their teachers, who with some exceptions are anti-Christian fundamentalists, but who claim with a straight face to believe in nothing for which there is no “scientific evidence.” But never mind; these days “academic freedom” means not the unfettered pursuit of truth, but the right to spout any nonsense safe in the knowledge that no one would dare call you on it, not the insecure and bewildered undergraduates you teach, nor the colleagues who believe exactly as you do, nor the civilians who quite sensibly have better things to do. As we know, the hallmark of the liberal ascendancy in the universities is the “celebration of diversity,” except when it comes to challenging secular humanism. The celebration ends where diversity of thought begins.

I know how all this works. I taught my first university class in 1982 and up until a few years ago I too was an instructor in the camp, harvesting souls for the secular humanist faith. Though a cradle Catholic, and even an altar boy, after high school I wandered away from the Church and into various kinds of trouble—and obviously stayed there for much too long, abusing and misusing mind, body, and soul. Someday perhaps I will be able to fully explain why I came home to the Church, but the fact is I’ve been spending so much of my time since thanking God and having fun (i.e. attending Mass, accumulating a library of Catholic philosophy, theology, and Church history, teaching, writing, and thinking) that I haven’t taken the time to give it justice. But there is one moment I know will be crucial to the story and that was the day I looked at my life and came to the conclusion that what I was thinking, saying, writing, and teaching, whatever it was doing for me, simply wasn’t true.

 Editor’s note: The image above is a statue of Veritas (Truth) by sculptor Walter Seymour Allward outside the Supreme Court of Canada.


  • Clifford Staples

    Clifford Staples, Ph.D., is a sociologist serving as a Faculty Associate with the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio.

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