"It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it."—Aristotle
“Education either functions as an instrument which is used to facilitate integration of the younger generation into the logic of the present system and bring about conformity or it becomes the practice of freedom, the means by which men and women deal critically and creatively with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world.” — Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed.
Inspiration was never hard to find as a graduate student at the University of Virginia. Surrounded by stately buildings and the academic enterprise, a walk through the grounds, as we called the campus, always motivated me. Passing Old Cabell Hall on my way to classes, I would always glance up at the Greek inscription on its façade. Although my Greek was a bit rusty, the famous words were easy to translate: “You shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free.” It is one of my favorite quotes from scripture. The thirst for knowledge and truth is the catalyst behind our academic
pursuits and discoveries. Knowledge, wisdom, and truth can empower and liberate us. They free us from the bondage of fear, ignorance, and lies. Yet, can we indeed know the truth?
Today, our access to information inundates us with a torrent of data that far exceeds our ability to process it; it often shapes us more than we shape it. As we try to navigate the vast oceans of information, we can easily become captives of its currents and eddy, struggling to escape the constant churn. Facts can be manipulated; information bias sways us to uncritically accept what conforms to our worldview and deny what does not. Anecdotal evidence and opinion influence our decisions more than research data does. What does not fit our narrative is simply dismissed as “fake
news,” irrelevant, or politically motivated. Movies, shows, and social media bombard us with alternate depictions of reality, while advertisements lure us with their siren songs of promises. Under such a relentless assault of images and information, how can we even discern the truth?
As a philosopher, I can easily venture into a discourse on epistemology and truth. I will spare you. I will say this, truth is not necessarily a rigid absolute; rather it is a quest. It is a dynamic process that questions motivations and axioms in search of something better, more inclusive, more encompassing, more accurate. This is what is at the heart of one of our basic tenets of education –critical thinking. It is one of the most important tasks of education and essential for our students today more than ever. For most of history, education was the domain of the elites. Reading and writing was reserved for a few – aristocrats, clergy, nobles and rulers. Knowledge is power; hence it was kept to the few. Limiting education allows the few to control the many, to keep them from questioning authority, to keep them in their place. That is why education is essential to democracy.
Community colleges democratized education by making it more accessible to people barred from education, the poor, the under-served, immigrants, racial and ethnic minorities. Today, we educate the largest numbers of college students in the nation. Our work is essential to preserving democracy.
In our society, information is malleable, biased, conflicting, and misinterpreted. It can lead us astray, divide us, foment hate, misinform us and ultimately destroy us as a country. If we ignore scientific data regarding climate change or deny the threat of the pandemic, for instance, it has disastrous consequences. Teaching students information literacy, how to evaluate the source, the agendas, intent, value and accuracy of information will help our future generations to responsibly navigate the sea of information that surrounds us. These are the skills that will free their minds and ensure our future; they will be the catalyst of change that our society so desperately needs.
As a college, our task is not to indoctrinate students, to sway them to accept one view or another. Rather, it is to equip them to be critical thinkers, to question authority, to analyze problems, ask questions, conduct research, interpret and evaluate information. Our task is to feed their curiosity and imagination. It is not to shape them in our own image, but to help them find their own and thus to shape the future. Teach them to seek the truth and it will set them free.