August 19, 2019

Why Aren’t America’s Problems Being Solved?

The United States has had a border problem for decades and both political parties have blamed each other, promised to solve it if elected, failed to do anything about it when elected, and then blamed the other side for their failure. The same is true of problems with the health care system, the imbalance of trade, the near-insolvency of Medicare, the ever-increasing national debt, the deterioration of cities, drug addiction, the breakdown of the family, and domestic terror, among others.

The question that cries out for an answer is this: Why haven’t our leaders done their jobs and effectively addressed and solved the nation’s problems? Unfortunately, the answers that are offered to this question are little different from the answers to the problems themselves—one political party or the other (or private institution) is sexist, racist, homophobic, blah blah blah.

The real answer is that our leaders have failed to do their jobs not so much because of their personal weaknesses (however numerous they may be) as because of a false idea that has infected our country and now dominates our lives and our institutions. That idea is that truth is subjective and personal rather than objective and impersonal. 

This idea is known as “Relativism” and has been advanced at various times and in different forms since the time of ancient Greece, but has never been more widely accepted and influential than in contemporary America. Common expressions of this idea are “we create our own reality,” “truth lies within rather than outside us,” and “our personal opinions constitute our truth.”

Such expressions have formed the basis of self-help books, been frequently repeated in the media, and have gained such widespread acceptance that they are considered compatible with the ideals of freedom, human dignity, mutual respect, and tolerance. In reality, however, they have undermined those ideals. Here is how:

Believing that truth exists within us has taken away people’s interest in searching for it. Why search for what we think we already have? This loss of interest defeats every kind of inquiry, from the proper use of a word or the most healthful diet to the value of religion, the most effective form of government, the validity of global warming theory, and the cause of racism. It leaves us ill informed and happy to be so.

Loss of interest in searching for truth has devalued history. Of all the kinds of inquiry, historical inquiry is the most basic. Every subject has a history marked by discoveries and/or inventions, in a word by progress. To learn the history of a field is to move from ignorance to knowledge. But as more people believed they already knew all that is worth knowing, the less need there was for the study of history. So schools changed the status of history courses from required to elective—and fewer and fewer students elected them. The result has been ignorance and along with it the delusion of knowledge. We don’t have to learn our ancestors’ answers to the great questions of life—the origin of humankind, the meaning of life, issues of right and wrong, good and evil, virtue and vice. We already know the answer to them all: “Whatever we wish it to be.”

Loss of interest in pursuing truth has weakened, as well, other subjects than history. The subjects include the sciences, social sciences, language and literature, and mathematics. Not only have students taken these subjects less seriously, educators also have. Ignoring their traditional tasks of presenting knowledge to students, sharing the insights of famous contributors, and guiding students’ inquiry, many educators choose to promote their personal “truths,” often in matters far removed from their areas of expertise. Instead of enlightening students’ minds they colonize them, often with great success. Legions of college graduates believe they have acquired a “higher education,” when they have merely absorbed the prejudices, and often the closed-minded arrogance, of their mentors.

A more serious effect of the devaluation of truth has been the abandonment of logic and critical thinking in education. The traditional educational approach of stuffing minds full of factual information was unfortunately focused on regurgitation rather than thoughtful analysis, but at least the information presented was based on scholarship conducted for the purpose of determining objective truth. Since the pursuit of objective truth has become passé, thoughtful research and analysis have been rendered irrelevant. Why have students spend long hours accumulating information, weighing various interpretations, and deciding which is most reasonable, when they can be left to their own opinions . . . or badgered to borrow those of their professors? And why should professors present the thoughts of historic figures in their disciplines when they can promote their own personal “truths”?

It would be a mistake to think that the impact of Relativism has been solely on the education system. It is found in virtually every social institution and agency. Let’s look at two of important ones: Journalism and Government.

The devaluation of truth has led journalists to abandon the central tenet of their professional code—that opinion should never be mixed with fact. This rule required separating facts from commentary, with the latter restricted to the editorial page. Journalists were generally forbidden to both report and comment, but that changed when Relativism was embraced. Today, reporting often mixes fact and opinion, in some cases seasoned with fantasy. Many newspapers and news programs make no pretense of objectivity, but boldly and even brazenly advocate for a particular social and/or political agenda, highlighting news that flatters their viewpoint, and diminishing, distorting, or ignoring the rest. For such people, journalism is not about reporting the facts but instead promoting their opinions. The ironic result is that, though the general public has more access to news sources than any generation in history, it is more misinformed than informed.

This tendency of journalism to misinform the public is no small matter. It blurs reality, making meaningful discussion difficult at best.

The devaluation of truth has prevented many elected officials from doing their jobs.The responsibility of elected officials is to provide leadership and initiative in solving city, state or national problems, notably those mentioned in the first paragraph of this essay. The requirements of that job include putting aside preconceived assumptions and opinions and working with their colleagues to acquire facts, identify and evaluate possible solutions, and reach consensus about which is best. These requirements can only be met when the officials acknowledge that the ideas presented will not be of equal value and, even more important, that someone else’s idea may prove to be better than theirs.

But many elected officials cannot meet these requirements because of their belief that truth is subjective and personal. Accordingly, they cannot put aside their preconceived assumptions and opinions because they have been taught to regard them as personal “truths” to be treasured. They also cannot conceive of the possibility that opposing ideas could ever be superior to theirs. They have their personal “truth” about every issue or problem and they will not budge from it to seek compromise even for the purpose of ensuring the well-being of the people who elected them and the country at large. In other words, they will not, cannot, admit their view could be even partly mistaken. They consider consensus to be abandonment of what is most precious to them, their personal “truth.”

To summarize, America’s problems are not being solved because a great number of its citizens, including its leaders, have embraced the absurd view that all truth lies within them and those who reject their view are at least irresponsible and at worst evil. Unless we can overcome this development and regain a measure of intellectual humility, our present division, mutual contempt, and public verbal assaults will continue to propel America toward social chaos.

Copyright © 2019 by Vincent Ryan Ruggiero. All rights reserved

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Written by
Vincent Ryan Ruggiero

VINCENT RYAN RUGGIERO, M.A., is Professor of Humanities Emeritus, State University of New York, Delhi College. Prior to his twenty-nine year career in education, he was a social caseworker and an industrial engineer. The author of twenty-one books, his trade books include Warning: Nonsense Is Destroying America and The Practice of Loving Kindness. His textbooks include The Art of Thinking and Beyond Feelings, both in 10th editions and available in Chinese as well as English, Thinking Critically About Ethical Issues, and A Guide to Sociological Thinking. His latest book, Corrupted Culture: Rediscovering America's Enduring Principles, Values, and Common Sense, is available at Amazon and in bookstores. Professor Ruggiero is internationally recognized as one of the pioneers of the Critical Thinking movement in education. Earlier in his career, he published essays in a variety of magazines and journals, including America, Catholic Mind, The Sign, The Lamp, and Catholic World.

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Written by Vincent Ryan Ruggiero
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