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OTG: The modern university: When truth becomes a personal attack

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Apr 20, 2016

Molly Oshatz nails it in a little essay in the May 2016 issue of First Things called “College Without Truth”. Right now you can’t read the entire essay without subscribing or paying $1.95, but that would be cheap at twice the price.

This is more than another spin on the dictatorship of relativism. Everybody knows by now that complete openness to all “lifestyle decisions” places enormous restrictions on our freedom of thought, speech and action, at a cost that goes far beyond the alternative. For there are two kinds of intellectual regimes in this world. On the one hand, we can recognize that the mind’s conformity to reality imposes objective intellectual and moral obligations, and sometimes be wrong in the particular conclusions we reach. On the other, we can refuse to admit the objective and obligatory character of truth—and always be wrong.

The modern university, with few exceptions, models the latter kind of intellectual regime. But what Oshatz brilliantly grasps is the paradox that our modern relativized university students, adrift in their sea of openness, take every difference of opinion so damn personally that it hurts. Consider:

Epistemological relativism looks to be a way of widening discussion and inculcating tolerance and empathy…. But there’s a big problem with this vision: It makes intellectual conflict intolerable. If truth is something neutral that exists outside of all of us, then we can discuss it and disagree about its content without involving ourselves personally, at least not right away. But if the only truth for me is my own personal truth arising from my identity and circumstances, then any and all disagreement about what is is by definition personal.

Every debate becomes a personal battle. Every challenge must be shouted down in order to safeguard my own self-image. Or as Oshatz puts it: “Every act of persuasion, no matter how reasoned, is an attempt to dominate, and to be persuaded is to submit to someone else’s reality. Epistemological relativism makes a free, open debate an aggressive, winner-take-all battle of wills.”

This is what really happens when we pretend everything is relative. Every alternative comment is necessarily taken personally. Ideas are perceived as dangerous.

On the Good (OTG) is a service of CatholicCulture.org.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: rdennehy8049 - Apr. 25, 2016 9:11 AM ET USA

    Even historically conservative colleges are becoming bastions of liberalism. The professors spout their ideas and the student, in fear of failure, have to listen. And they better not dare to express a different opinion.

  • Posted by: Randal Mandock - Apr. 20, 2016 12:58 PM ET USA

    In a meeting with one of our top executives I suggested that our campus culture would improve if we taught a common set of moral norms based on an objective standard. The law of Moses is one such standard that was recognized for a couple of centuries in this country as the basis for right conduct in all daily affairs. The response was "You can't say that!!!" Mind you that mine is a nominally Christian university. Yet an objective standard of moral behavior cannot be required of the students.