In the dystopian world of 1984, Winston Smith toils in the Ministry of Truth, rewriting the past so it conformed always to the mandates of the present. In other words, his job was to craft lies. His work troubled him, even as he diligently performed his tasks. “If the Party could thrust its hand into the past and say of this or that event, it never happened,” he mused, “that, surely was more terrifying than mere torture and death?” How despairing to understand that if all records told the same tale, and if everyone else accepted that story without question, “then the lie passed into history and became truth.” That, he recognized, was the real horror.
Winston, I just have to ask: what difference does it make? Why should it matter whether the stories we accept about the past are true or not? It is, after all, a matter of perspective and interpretation, and who are we to judge one interpretation to have greater truth than another. For many of our students, interpretation is no different than opinion, and somewhere along the line they have come to understand that opinion is bias and bias is bad.
Of course, we know that it matters a great deal whether our knowledge of the past – or present – is based on verifiable facts and that the conclusions drawn from those facts have logical integrity. We know that scholarship is more than a matter of perspective or interpretation, opinion and bias. As university faculty our mission is to transmit truth and to teach our students to seek the truth. We reach our answers by evaluating the evidence and the sources. But what if the resulting truth is uncomfortable, or contradicts our certainties? Do we teach those uncomfortable, disquieting truths, or do we slide over them and stick to narratives affirming our world view?
Every day students approach librarians at the reference desk seeking help with their research assignments. More often than not, the student is not seeking information to understand their topic, but only sources that will confirm a conclusion already formed. They are seeking to prove their thesis. Stated another way, they have the answer before they begin the quest. This is not the same as formulating a hypothesis. A hypothesis is meant to be tested, not taken as a certainty. Many students begin with a certainty, and by beginning with an answer rather than a question they will be ill-equipped to evaluate the evidence.
The shelves of the Lloyd Sealy Library are lined with volumes offering a full range of perspectives. Our databases reach back to the earliest volumes of academic journals. Many of the authors in past decades drew conclusions quite contrary to the perspectives of the present. These books remain on the shelves to affirm that scholars and pundits have held different opinions in the past, and it behooves us to understand why. Our students deserve to be challenged by information and views at odds with their own. As physicist Richard Feynman put it, “I would rather have questions that can't be answered than answers that can't be questioned.”