10/03/2012 04:01 pm ET Updated Dec 03, 2012

Educational Integrity in Post-Truth America

Do we live in a "post-truth" era? Recently, my institution was targeted by conservative political blogs for apparently offering a state-funded course that would have provided college credit for partisan activities. The reality was that our university's internal electronic bulletin board announced the potential for independent study credit for students wishing to volunteer on a particular candidate's campaign. The opposing candidate's campaign was asked whether they would offer a similar internship, but declined.

An employee blogged about the announcement and suggested students would be paid with state funds to work on the internship -- a completely false assumption. He provided the link on his blog and set off a firestorm among the Tea Party crowd, including some of our own alumni (at least proving that we aren't only turning out Liberal Robots).

When I became aware of the announcement, I immediately ordered it taken down and the possibility for such a one-sided course cancelled. But when we tried to explain that it could never have happened -- we have internal controls for how state funds can be spent -- we weren't believed, and the accusation was repeated over and over again on various websites and blogs. When I responded with an explanation to one email, I was called, among other things, an "educational propagandist." Willing true believers immediately accepted that Adams State University would do something both stupid and illegal because, hey, we are a university and all universities are part of the liberal conspiracy against America, and, as one individual said -- why would he believe me instead of what he read on the Internet?

But, if everyone was going to be famous for 15 minutes in the pre-Internet Andy Warhol age, rumors on the Internet both can live forever as conspiracy theories or die a quick death when the trolls latch into another, meatier story. But my real concern isn't about Adams State University and the hassle this caused. It raises the question of how we teach students to pursue and recognize the truth when past measures of credibility no longer appear to apply. A spokesperson for one of the campaigns recently said, "We're not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact-checkers."

Both major political parties and related organizations have engaged in every sort of propaganda (big lie, little lie repetition, out of context statements, etc.) described in any Political Science 101 or Argumentation course as unethical (but also, in small type, as quite effective).

I recently had to suspend a student for repeated plagiarism, but the student didn't see their actions as any big deal, since lies are spread all over the media and the internet. Truth is becoming field dependent -- meaning: if it fits within the paradigm or ideology of the receiver being tweeted and twittered, it is accepted as truth. Those means of communication that could bring us all together are instead contributing to "hardening of the categories." When we don't even share the same facts anymore, because the truth is being manufactured and remanufactured and told to us over and over again by our community members in all kinds of ways, we lose any ability to reach consensus or to compromise, and problems go begging for solutions we can never agree upon.

But perhaps in the problem lies the solution. Many have predicted that online formats will significantly alter how post-secondary education is delivered, and in the processes related to this change, new indices for credibility will be established, and the effective pursuit of the truth will continue. Until then, we will have to continue to sort through a mélange of rumors, conspiracy theories, and big lies and small lies.