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The Parthenon


Column: Reflections and painful truths


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In the words of J.K. Rowling’s minister of magic, “these are dark times.” Institutions of public trust which form the basis of civil society are upended, maligned and starved of public financing. The social contract is collapsing. Fear, fantasy, fake news and fiction replace fact and forward thinking. As educators and as institutions of higher learning, we must confront these stark realities clear-eyed and resolute.

To be sure, the challenges are many and complex, but the task begins by doing what others are not … taking a breath. In the Potter Box, an ethical tool created by a theologian, the first step in sorting through a dilemma is clarifying the problem. Issue? Millions of well-meaning Americans simply do not have any remaining faith in things we used to have in common. These run the gamut but include organized religion, public education, higher education, family, government and social responsibility. In this last category lies the thorniest issue of all — the trustworthiness of the American news media and, separately, American willingness to make pluralism and diversity of thought valued and steadfastly defended.

In other words, we face a hostile public taunted into frenzy by a president who claims two very dangerous and untrue things — the media are enemies of the state, and immigrants are enemies of us all. Psychologists warn of the error of “us against them,” of setting up some “other” who can be readily blamed for a myriad of ills. To use the president’s own word, such thinking is a “ruse.” Yet, rather than rail against this banality, we must now figure out how to counteract its threatening effects and push back.

What do we value? Marshall, my employer for 11 years, values diversity of thought, academic integrity, facts-based claims, evidence over supposition, reason and the rule of law. Even the Latin root for university has the pursuit of truth built right into it. What moral principle then should apply to the issue above? Several come to mind, but Mill’s “needs of the many” and the Judeo- Christian “Golden Rule” seem to fit best. Mill suggests people who make decisions should effect change as to deliver the greatest good to the largest number, or limit the impact of negative outcomes to the smallest group possible. The Golden Rule says decision making ought rightly to be guided by basic humanity and decency. Do unto others means don’t do it if the roles were reversed and you wound up being hurt. In other words, take a breath. To whom are we loyal? In Shakespeare we find a well-written readily available phrase. “Give every man thy ear but few thy voice. (sic) This above all. To thine own self be true. (sic) Thou cans’t not then be false to any man.”

Higher education is loyal to the pursuit of the truth in an obscure world where truth is increasingly difficult to discover. This means our task is clear. “When they go low, we go high.” That is not a political phrase any longer — it is a rallying cry. Rather than cower in fear of the many who spew hate, or worse, yell back at them, we must continue to present the truth. Rather than allow the ridiculous claim that universities have become “indoctrination” centers for progressive thinking, we must continue to ask our charges to think for themselves. To be sure, we already do this, but our messaging to that effect has been ineffective. In this way, pursuing the truth, we can defend both the news media vouchsafed to check power and better protect helpless people groups targeted by bigots. Speaking truth to power … unafraid. My pledge in 2017. Marshall’s North Star. And a better way forward for all of us.

Dr. Swindell teaches news in the W. Page Pitt School of Journalism and Mass Communications. His views are his own and are not necessarily those of his employer.

He can be contacted at [email protected]

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