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Monday, July 13, 2015


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>> I submit that truth-making facts, facts of, are not, in general, finite-mind-dependent ... For then you would be committed (in a different sense) to such preposterous propositions as that the fact of the Moon's existence is dependent on the existence of human beings. One gets the distinct impression that anti-realists of the Schwartzian stripe are simply failing to make some elementary distinctions. <<

In my experience as a teacher, such anti-realism is the default position for many students currently moving through the American university. Here is a representation of a dialogue I sometimes have with students.

Student: Truth is completely subjective.
Teacher: What do you mean?
S: Truth is totally relative to the individual. There is no truth apart from what I say the truth is.
T: Is what you said really true?
S: Yes, of course. Everybody knows this.
T: So what you said is totally relative to your own mind?
S: I guess so. But so what?
T: Well, for one thing, another person could disagree with you and say truth is absolute. And his claim would be true, relative to his mind. Right?
S: I guess that's right.
T: And for another thing, if truth is completely relative to the individual, then if a person were to claim the Moon is made of bubble gum ice cream, then his claim would be true. Is that what you hold?
S: Yes, that's right.
T: So are you saying the person's claim would really make the Moon to be bubble gum ice cream?
S: Yes. For him.
T: Are you mistaking truth with belief here?
S: Mistaking? How?
T: The person would believe the Moon is made of bubble gum ice cream, and his belief would be relative to his own mind. But that fact wouldn't entail that his belief is true. Truth and belief are different. Would you agree?
S: No. Truth and belief are the same. Truth is belief. Nothing more.

Thanks for the comment, Elliot. My friend Peter Lupu will enjoy it very much. He teaches at a community college and makes the same complaint as you do about today's students. Of course, this is nothing new. It has been going on since the '60s at least. But it looks to be getting worse.

Student relativism, to give it a name, is not so much a philosophical position as it is a self-defense mechanism: "You can't tell me anything since it's all relative."

I'm concerned it's getting worse. Some university administrators are indirectly and unwittingly encouraging student relativism by imposing language policies on the feedback instructors provide for student essays.

For example, admins tell instructors not to explicitly inform the student of an error in content or in reasoning, because the admins don't want the student to feel uncomfortable, and because they want to value each student's perspective. Instead, admins tell instructors to clearly compliment the student. For errors, instructors are expected to use language which is ambiguous enough to suggest the possibility that the error was committed, not by the student, but by the instructor who misread the paper and didn't recognize or understand the correct information rendered by the student.

I agree that it is getting worse.

Part of it is abdication of authority on the part of professors and admins.

Things have changed! The philosophy program I was in was more like Seal training. :-) I turned in one paper - maybe 8 pages - on the subject of 'Monads' and barely escaped with my life.

Another aspect of the decline is that serious teaching and learning are becoming more difficult to achieve in the university. Thus, the true joys of teaching and learning are infrequently experienced in higher ed.

If it's all relative, such that the opinions of student and teacher are equally reliable, and nobody really knows anything; and if the main goals in the classroom are to ensure that everyone feels good and that everyone gets a passing grade (rather than the goal of learning), then can we really call it "education"?


Sadly, your dialog above is vary, very, familiar. It goes exactly as you stated. The trouble is that students have internalized relativism so thoroughly that they cannot even conceive that objective truth is a coherent option in literally every domain of discourse. One of my deans proclaimed that truth is a matter of perspective. I responded: "Is that true?" He was stunned!!!

Education has turned in the last several decades into means only and into Edu-gratification. The results are disastrous. But I do not see that anyone is paying attention. So we should expect this trend to persist and get even worst.

Well, Peter, many, many people have been paying attention to the problem and for a long time now. It is just that the cultural momentum is against us.

Peter and Bill,

I agree that the internalization of relativism is a problem in higher education. The problem is such that relativistic streams in higher education are in some ways subtly rejecting true Socratic discussion - the type of discussion that seeks to identify and question internalized assumptions.

Superficial "critical thinking" is encouraged. But if such thinking questions the meaning or plausibility of widely held assumptions such as "relativism" or "equality" or "tolerance" then the thinking is rejected as impolite, overly-intellectual, or worse.

People are paying attention to the problem. But attending to the problem sometimes requires pertinent assumption-questioning, which is difficult to do in a culture that is moving against the questioning of its own assumptions.

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