‘Fake News!’ The rallying call of Donald Trump, which he uses to urge his supporters not to believe mainstream media stories, particularly those that don’t tally with how he sees things. This is, literally, the world according to Trump, and that world is a very right wing one, centred on unfettered capitalism, individualism, and a return to the good old days. But the left has always distrusted the mainstream media too, arguing that far from being a socialist conspiracy, most of the large media outlets grew big precisely because they benefitted from capitalistic practices, including support from corporate advertising. In which case, if the media trades in truth, it does so in a world of mistrust and compromise.
They used to say that the first casualty of war is the truth; that now seems to hold true for extreme culture wars. I see the world differently from you, but with no truth how can either side actually win? Somewhat paradoxically though there does seem to be some kind of agreement on the extremes of the right and left, because if the truth is out there it is because it accords with what is in our heads. And to such an extent that if something gets in the way of the story it can be easily explained away – by some ad hoc theorising.
If no one finds any evidence of a Democratic paedophile ring operating from the basement of a pizza restaurant in Washington DC, then it must be because they knew someone was coming and they moved it all out of the way. That might sound ludicrous, but the history of science is peppered with examples of where scientists have added on new ideas to protect old ones. If boys won’t admit they want to sleep with their mothers, then it must be because they are repressing the thought through constantly evolving defence mechanisms. If workers don’t want to overthrow capitalism then they must be suffering from a new bout of false class consciousness. And if the universe is behaving oddly then there must be a planet out there that we haven’t spotted, yet.
But surely we can’t view all these examples in the same light? But that’s exactly what we now see in some of the nihilistic thinking of the post-modern left. There is no independent truth, only stories we tell ourselves, because we are compelled to try to make sense of a universe that has no inherent meaning. The truth is just an ever growing army of humanly constructed metaphors, to paraphrase Nietzsche. Some might be better and more useful than others, but it’s metaphors all the way down.
So how do we teach in this post-truth world? Do we ask students to deconstruct the conspiracy theory by asking what compels people to believe in them? Do we ask students to think about whether Western scientific theories would have been different if the practitioners had been mainly non-white and female? Do we, in short, argue that theory always trumps (pun intended) reality, and must, in the end, reflect it? Or do we fight back, by dusting down our discarded Enlightenment spectacles, and start looking hard for what is really out there?
Coming closer to home, we find some thorny truths in educational development. We are all reflective practitioners now and part of that narrative is to ensure that we equip ourselves with the research tools to build up a solid evidence base for our practice. But we still theorise, often in problematic and contested ways. Did a student not learn because of a now discarded learning style theory? Or was it really a sociological issue all along, because the curriculum was alien to their working class roots (but only if we accept the current theoretical definitions of social class). Or was it because the teacher unconsciously resembled the student’s hideous father (an example from Freud’s own life), which would require a huge investment in (often deeply contested) psychoanalytic theory.
Reflective practice also sometimes invokes the double-loop idea. Here we don’t just ask people to think about how their practice might be enhanced (the first loop or reflective cycle) but also to question the foundation for what they are reflecting on. For example, I may be having problems incorporating aspects of employability into my sociology classes. My solution?; increase my evidence base by engaging in some action research. Hunt for some truth, if you will. But in double loop thinking I might begin to ask why employability is so important in the first place. What happened to knowledge for its own sake? And unfortunately, the truths in second loop thinking often rest on value judgements. Some of those values may be viewed as fundamental, such as a belief in social justice, but not everyone shares the same conceptual definition of social justice, and it still remains a value, not a simple fact – and its truth thereby remains highly elusive and contested.
It seems that we are all part of the culture wars, whether we like it or not.
John Lea, Independent Higher Education Consultant