4th century BC: "All men by nature desire to know" (Aristotle, Metaphysics).
21st century AD: "All individuals, out of sheer will, desire to opine" (A professor, at a university near you).
Welcome to the modern Academy, the seat of opinion-based "education." A French Literature professor assigns the most obscure and risqué writers. A twelfth century chanteuse of sexual freedom (M. de France) takes center stage, while major French writers hardly command a footnote. In their "journal de lecture", students simply describe their impression about the "poems", whether they liked it, and why. A Western Literature teacher overlooks Virgil, Dante, Goethe, and Dostoyevsky, among others, because "there is no such thing as a literary canon." The reading list is not based on literary quality, but on the author's membership of a "marginalized" group. A History of Theater professor mocks classical plays and assigns his own. A Translation instructor prompts her students to produce their own translations; no rules of grammar, please. The Philosophy professor proclaims that he is, oh, so bored with Aristotle. The Philosophy of Photography, instead, commands his praise. An Ethics professor extols liberty as sole "moral law", and disdains "those obsolete" normative principles of moral philosophy. Follow your bliss.
Exaggerated? Ask your children, your nephews, your nieces, your grandchildren. And you, dear college student, unless you attend one of the extant outposts of academic excellence, may have just recognized one or more of your instructors.
These professors know, or should know, better. They all have advanced degrees from prestigious schools. They studied the classics. They can tell the difference between Bach and Bieber, Aristotle and Žižek. Yet, they are the cheerleaders of relativism and skepticism, of subjectivism and absolute will. Their classrooms are get-togethers. Like, so cool! Objective truth or value criteria -- ethical, theological, aesthetical, and so on -- are anathemas. The True, the Good, and the Beautiful are, they claim, undefinable and meaningless. The classroom "dialogue" soon becomes an erratic fission of tentative, groundless opinions. Power becomes the ultimate arbiter. The most vehement and persuasive opiner (the professor, perhaps?) carries the day. All opinions are created equal but theirs is better (just trust them).
Unfazed by the logical contradiction, these academicians unflinchingly advocate the truth that "there is no truth." À la Nietzsche, they also profess another "truth": there are no facts, only interpretations. Anthropological and ontological facts upon which ethics and aesthetics are developed -- and even historical and scientific facts -- are but a few of the casualties. Since knowledge presupposes that something is true, claiming that there are neither normative nor factual truths entails the following "truths": you construct your own "knowledge" (do not forget the quotes), your own nature, your own gender. All value judgment must be suspended. Subjective opinion rules. Intellectual slovenliness and truth-less liberty are legitimized and celebrated.
Two extreme maladies eventually fill the truth vacuum: disbelief and gullibility, nihilism and fanaticism. In ideological seesaw, the skeptic may later become enslaved to a radical cult, an addiction or excess; the fanatic may later leave behind the backpack of easy beliefs. Emancipation from both intellectual and spiritual bondages is possible only by Truth.
Disheartening? You bet. A colleague in the natural sciences tells you that there is no such thing as truth, and questions that 1 + 1 = 2, while expecting her chemical formulas to be accepted. A student doubts the very existence of the wall across. He endlessly argues the dubitability of a sensible fact. Meanwhile, the faithful Darwinist dismisses as nonsense any fact that may challenge this dogma. Elementary scientific intuition and common sense dissolve under the mirage of dogmatic skepticism and zealotry.
The maladies spread outside of the halls of ivy. The abortion arena is an example of the glaring disregard of facts and value criteria in favor of subjective opinion. Data and images of fetal development, descriptions of abortion procedures, and evidence of its negative physical, psychological, and social effects are regularly overlooked (hidden?) by pro-choice advocates. Uterine contents or human baby, fetal tissue or human life -- to them, just semantics or subjective opinion. Everybody is "entitled" to their own opinions, interpretations, or choices, regardless of their cogency or grounds. Yet, when the true facts of the world and human nature are ignored or transgressed, there are real and dire consequences. Uninformed by truth, choice (concerning issues of human significance) is a pathetic illusion; and sheer opinion, a thing of triviality. Uninformed by truth, autonomous will is unrestraint.
The truth of the law of identity (self-evident axioms) or of the earth being spherical (well-established scientific facts) does not depend on anyone's opinions, preferences, or acceptance. Neither do the ontological facts of human nature. Asserting these truths is neither an imposition nor a violation of anyone's rights. That some results may be revised, or new evidence uncovered, does not imply that there is no truth; but the opposite. That a hurricane will likely arrive at the Bahamas by 2 A.M. tomorrow, though neither a self-evident, certain, or necessary truth, is not merely an opinion, but based on historical facts, temperature, nature of the wind, pressure and moisture, and so on.
Some things are true: Many students start college life with such an inkling. They have heard that the university's mission is the pursuit of truth. They might infer that educators and researchers share this mission. They probably had experienced things really good and beautiful. The passion and search for truth -- not for opinion -- had perhaps piqued their curiosity. Somehow, regurgitating their own opinions seemed pointless. Quite likely, they knew that a wall is a wall -- even when they are not staring at it. They also knew that, if in doubt of its existence, they could look at it, touch it, and find out. When they leave college, they doubt even that. Unless their intellectual and moral backbones are firm, their basic intuitions and common sense may have been impaired by the avalanche of skepticism or gullibility.
Students were children before, and knew that the Emperor had no clothes. Yet, they were wooed by ideological enchanters who, like the weavers in Hans Christian Andersen's fable, "pretended to weave, though there was nothing on the looms," "pretended to lift and hold it high. They didn't dare admit they had nothing to hold."
Held high are the magnificent cloths of Cartesian and Humean doubt, of Kantian spell and Nietzschean hubris, of Neo-Marxist rapture and postmodern posturing. "Clothes made of this cloth had a wonderful way of becoming invisible to anyone who was unfit for his office, or who was unusually stupid." Afraid of being labeled conservative, fundamentalist, old-fashioned, or unfit for lofty scholarly pursuits, more than a few have complicitly praised those magnificent philosophical cloths. Like the townsfolk of Andersen's story, "nobody would confess that he couldn't see anything, for that would prove him either unfit for his position, or a fool." Overly concerned with approval and popularity, too complacent, glib, lazy, or indifferent, they also said "this procession has got to go on."
Yet, the Emperor really had no clothes.
Alma Acevedo, PhD, teaches courses in applied ethics and conducts research in this field.