The 2016 presidential election process has got me thinking about the value of a liberal education, and not for the reasons you might suppose. My intent isn’t to add fuel to our nation’s already heated political environment. Instead, I’d like to reflect on higher education’s role at a time when “alternative facts” and “fake news” have become a fixture in our national conversation, stirring up a mood of uncivil discontent and mistrust.
Let’s pause for a moment, and look beyond the unsettling headlines. Colleges and universities are part of a pervasive media narrative that reflects and feeds public concern about the affordability, ROI and even necessity of a liberal arts degree. According to Lynn Pasquerella, president of the Association of American Colleges and Universities, the devaluing of a college degree has been “exacerbated by the recent political jockeying and appeals to people’s fears and prejudices, in which rational inquiry built on evidence has all but been abandoned.”
As president of Stetson University, a private liberal arts institution, I hold myself accountable for doing more to champion the outcomes of liberal education. I urge other educators to join me in that crusade. In particular, I see an opportunity to reaffirm liberal education’s role in discerning the truth, not as an ivory-tower exercise but as a requisite for building the next generation of informed citizens.
Fundamentally, a liberal arts education helps students understand that facts can mislead, particularly when taken in isolation or without proper context. An ironic case in point: fake news. The rise of alternative facts may seem like an aberration of our current political environment, but fake news is actually a time-honored American tradition.
Back in the founding days of the republic, John Adams and his fellow Boston patriots planted fake stories aimed at undermining royal authority in Massachusetts. Benjamin Franklin was an especially skilled fabricator of indictments against King George. In a fit of industriousness, he published an entire fake issue of a real newspaper to sway public opinion. “By the press we can speak to nations,” Franklin wrote with a wink.
His makeshift printing press seems downright quaint compared to the sophisticated tools today’s opinion makers use in creating, curating and disseminating their opinions to the world. The information cycle is 24/7, thanks to social media’s exponential ability to spread stories, but that freedom comes with a cost. Separating fact from fiction can feel just about as futile as using a bailer to save a sinking ship.
Two recent studies reveal the unsettling influence of fake news in our daily lives. A 2016 Pew Research Center study found that 64 percent of adults in America believe biased news stories are sowing a great deal of confusion about the basic facts surrounding current events. By contrast, many younger adults face a different problem: They are overly trusting of their sources of news, according to a 2016 Stanford study. Stanford’s History Education Group spend a year evaluating students from middle school to college. A majority of those students—more than 80 percent—could not distinguish ads from articles, activist groups from neutral sources or fake accounts from real ones. The students also struggled to discriminate between real and fake photographs as well as authentic and staged videos. The Stanford researchers used words like “bleak” and “dismaying” to describe their findings.
At stake is something deeper than an inability to distinguish between what’s real and what is not.
As citizens, we increasingly find it difficult to know where to place our trust. This uncertainty can make us wary, cynical, even apathetic. Without even realizing it, we may find ourselves retreating to an echo chamber, where we filter out dissenting views and listen only to the multiplying sound of our own beliefs. This is a troubling development to say the least. When citizens stop seeking the truth, and shut out diverse points of view, we effectively put our nation’s democratic—and educational—ideals out to pasture.
In these disquieting times, I find myself returning to the words of Stetson University’s first president. Dr. John Forbes (1885-1904) championed the ideals of a creative community where students can develop the habit of “independent judgment” and the “skills of investigating statements and principles for oneself, and thus discover their truth or falsity.” His prescient words remain at the core of Stetson’s mission. Our language today may be different, but the goal remains the same, namely “to foster in students the qualities of mind and heart that will prepare them to reach their full potential as informed citizens of local communities and the world.”
Especially now, institutions of higher learning must make a stronger case for preparing graduates for a lifetime of civic engagement. We seriously undershoot the mark if we reduce the value of a liberal arts degree to career readiness or the size of the first paycheck. It’s simply not enough to prepare graduates for gainful employment. And offering quick degrees at a low cost, without due consideration for the quality of the learning, isn’t going to get our communities and higher education where they need to be.
Education should lead to a job, absolutely, but it should also lead to a fulfilling and personally satisfying life in a society we want to live in, fight for and improve. Viewed this way, education serves as a powerful agent of change, a source of deep learning that comes from reflection, rigor and application. A liberal education, at its best, is threaded through with values that are characteristic features of the enlightened citizen—informed convictions, intercultural literacy, personal integrity, creative expression and the capacity for courageous debate on the real issues.
If I am sure of anything, it’s the raw potential of our students as rising leaders. They have the passion to solve the world’s most pressing problems using technology and the legacy of an excellent education. Let’s give students the tools they need to build a more trusting, open society. I am well aware this smacks of idealism, but it’s a badge I am proud to wear.