Teresa Amott
Photo by Kent Kriegshauser

Over the past three years, the Knox faculty has been working to define a 21st century educational program that builds on our historic liberal arts tradition, which the catalog defines as “the broad learning our students pursue to shape themselves as multifaceted and well-informed critical thinkers.” I can think of no environment more suited to shaping critical thinking than a residential liberal arts campus. That these critical thinking skills are essential to the future seems also clear.

The definition of critical thinking takes on greater importance at the start of this academic year, when new and returning students are engaging once again with faculty and fellow students, exploring new ideas, testing the limits of their knowledge, and even questioning the ideals and values they hold dear. Freedom of speech and academic freedom are necessary foundations to this process. Yet we start this new year in the midst of ongoing political turmoil and polarization on issues ranging from the Supreme Court to immigration, from foreign policy to climate change, compounded by heated debates on social media.

As educated citizens, we take seriously the threats of political polarization and its companions of confirmation bias, selective consumption of media, and “the diminishing role of facts and analysis in American public life,” as outlined in a very interesting study entitled “Truth Decay” by the RAND Corporation, a nonpartisan institution that seeks to advance the public good through research and analysis. The study defines truth decay as a set of four related trends: “increasing disagreement about facts and analytical interpretations of facts and data; a blurring of the line between opinion and fact; an increase in the relative volume, and resulting influence, of opinion and personal experience over fact; and declining trust in formerly respected sources of factual information.”

As an educator and leader of an institution of higher learning, I am particularly aware of the role that education plays in helping to battle truth decay.

One of most distressing results of truth decay, as you can imagine, is the erosion of civil discourse. Other results, according to the study, include “political paralysis, alienation and disengagement of individuals from political and civic institutions, and uncertainty about U.S. policy.” I am sure that we can all bear witness to these results in our communities and, potentially more so, among our family and friends.

As an educator and leader of an institution of higher learning, I am particularly aware of the role that education plays, especially a broad-based and engaging education like the one Knox provides, in helping to battle truth decay. It’s something we take very seriously at Knox. In addition to the teaching and learning taking place in our classrooms, the College recently hosted Vikram David Amar, dean of the University of Illinois College of Law, who gave a standing-room-only talk on “Free Speech on the College Campus.” Throughout the months of September and October, the College has hosted voter registration drives in advance of the November midterm elections, as well as a campus-wide Day of Dialogue. Each of these events has encouraged our students to engage with new ideas, learn to actively listen to those with whom they disagree, and to engage with our political process—all life-long skills that are necessary to battle truth decay.

The nation has a long way to go to rebuild trust within our communities and in the institutions that uphold our society, but I can assure you that we at Knox will continue to introduce our students to new concepts and ideas, challenge them to explore thoughts and concepts outside of their comfort zone, encourage them to ask difficult questions, and leave Knox as thoughtful and critical participants in our world.

—Teresa L. Amott