It is always difficult to define a historical period while being part of it. Such work of classification is usually done afterwards, with the benefit of hindsight. And yet, following the rise of nationalism and xenophobia in the West and other places around the world, aided by the spread of lies through populist propaganda, some distinctive ways of referring to current events emerged. The Oxford Dictionary as a circumstance has defined this phenomenon, baptising it as ‘post-truth’, where the objective facts have less influence in public opinion than emotions and personal beliefs. What is particularly important—and particularly troubling—about this new era is the dismissal of or disregard for ‘objective facts’.
‘Social media bubbles’ in which ‘alternative facts’, including alternative histories, circulate as true are of concern for policy-makers, media experts, educators and psychologists alike. Hidden behind this concept are profound changes that undermine the very idea of society, because if humanity has spent centuries looking for the ‘truth’, it now aims to relativise it. In the new era, universal truths are abandoned, and the idea of objectivity is rejected, even when supported by real facts. The subjects feel capable of creating own truths and beliefs—their own customised goods—independent of values that in other times seemed unquestionable. Old formulae for questioning the social body with arguments and discursive rationale fall on deaf ears, as they no longer mean anything. They are now replaced with short effective phrases and suggestive images as new formulae that stimulate emotional strains and that target fear and irony.
This era poses an enormous challenge for education. It is not that lies will now be accepted as truth, and truth is defamed as lies, but that the sense by which we take our bearings in the real world—and the category of truth versus falsehood is among the mental means to this end—is being destroyed. How would one account for human development in the absence of a common commitment to rationality and truth, and what would constitute a standard for successful ‘pragmatic action’? Technology, with the obliteration of journalistic intermediation, has demoralised the journalistic narrative and has blurred the attributes that once gave it the role of social supervision as a barometer of truth.
In the absence of truth, which helps distinguish knowledge from mere belief, how would one even make sense of ‘understanding’? If it is to have any meaning at all, understanding requires reference to an objective framework, to facts, truth, the way things are. Understanding is context-dependent, because it has a characteristically subjective component. Nonetheless, it obtains its meaning, its cognitive force, from its additional, essential connection with truth: it is directed towards truth, towards the way the world is.
Digitalisation as a societal megatrend will have consequences for institutions of education. The reflection on this aspect is missing, especially regarding the development of new business models (commercialisation) and new legitimacy claims; for example, development of new learning architectures in ‘educational landscapes’ that support self-directed learning, promote truthful learning processes, and preserve legitimacy of data-based reasoning. At a time when the country’s education policy is on the drawing board, these issues need a closer look and clear addressal.
We value education not just for its extraneous benefits to the society, but also because we consider it as something that is good in itself. Justification rests as much on the intrinsic value of education as on its social and economic returns, making education a fundamental right. Educational aims, after all, emerge out of an image of the human individual and a vision of the good life and ideal society, as these are conceived from time to time. In our zealous appreciation of its social and economic returns and linkage with development, we should not lose sight of the values of justice, liberty, equality and respect for the dignity of the human individual that constitute the moral foundation of the envisioned social order. Ultimately, it is within this broader value framework, ground level activities of educational policy formulation, planning and administration are to be conceived, understood and justified. It behoves on the educational policy planner to check whether action on the ground—policies, plans, programmes, strategies and practices—is in harmony with the societal vision of the good life.
Rules for the Direction of the Mind by René Descartes could be a useful reference—if not essential—in all journalistic writings and in education process planning. In the first of his 12 rules, he indicates the objective of research is to provide the mind with a steady direction that allows it to form true and sound judgements about the subject under analysis. In the second rule, he suggests we strictly adhere to areas in which we are competent enough to obtain ‘certain and evident cognition’, without the shadow of a doubt, with respect to the matters in question. The third rule recommends that we concentrate our efforts on areas in which we can offer opinions with clarity, justification and conviction in the same way that one acquires scientific knowledge. With the aim of fine-tuning our knowledge, it is worth going through the conclusions one by one, as well as all together.
Citizens’ enthusiastic and surrendered bias towards the new way of communicating and receiving information is understandable because it does away with the middlemen who, until now, were newspapers or televisions. Citizens are now masters and authors of their own informative environment. It is precisely here that the problem lies. Internet services such as Facebook send each person information that suits their needs and interests, in a way that the recipient lives permanently enclosed within a vacuum or in a bubble that they don’t need to—or in reality are not able to—get out of. In this environment, all information and communications received are targeted to reinforce their passions, interests and opinions. There is no exposure to ideas that differ from their own standpoint regarding any general interest subject. This is because these ideas do not appear in their bubble, or if they do, it is to discredit them. Therefore, it is now—more than ever before—that we need to pay heed to the maxim: Thesis+Antithesis=Synthesis. Education needs to vigorously promote that.
By- Subrata Chakraborty, Former Dean & Director-in-Charge, IIM Lucknow, and former Director, Jaipuria Institute of Management, Lucknow