A New Year's resolution for the 'Age of Certainty'

A New Year's resolution for the 'Age of Certainty'
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2019 was the year when the search for truths was replaced by ever more insistent declarations of personal certainty.  

We expect bias in politics, but the alternating two-minute arguments about impeachment on the House floor seemed more like a family argument about whose faith was stronger. When all politics, and indeed all truth, becomes partisan or individual, any unifying social fabric disappears.

This posture of self-certainty is equally apparent on both the left and the right, and in the weekly tweets from President TrumpDonald John Trump Trump responds to calls to tear down monuments with creation of 'National Garden' of statues Trump: Children are taught in school to 'hate their own country' Trump accuses those tearing down statues of wanting to 'overthrow the American Revolution' MORE. They all routinely dissect incoming data or ideas for the bias they might contain, but are less likely to re-examine their own bias in light of criticism or new information. This dedication to certainty is spreading.


This month, the 31-year-old singer and super celebrity Lizzo created a courtside controversy by twerking during an L.A. Lakers basketball game in a dress with a large cut-out that allowed a full view of the black thong she was wearing. When a video of her twerking and demonstrating her body positive self-image for all the world to see went viral, the uproar on Twitter was predictable.

Some thought the outfit was inappropriate for a basketball game, and this criticism was criticized as fat shaming. Lizzo, of course, eventually responded at length that she is proud of her body and that “negative criticism has no stake in my life, no control over my life.”

Lizzo, and her fans, can reasonably argue that white men have been getting away with this sort of absolute self-belief and immunity to the ideas, opinions and judgments of others for centuries, but however unjust, arrogant and self-promoting it is from white men, self-certainty is not a moral justification.

As this inability to distinguish between rejecting ideas because of their source and because of what they convey moves from politics to society at large, we will lose more than our democracy. Self-certainty or authenticity by themselves cannot anchor our morality or sense of justice. You can be certain and wrong. You can be authentic and immoral.

This is equally a crisis for education. The goal of education is to increase uncertainty. Education should make it easier for you to look for and accept evidence that contradicts your views. (Current data reveal that the opposite often happens in college.) Education should be about change and not just content. As a career educator, my goal has been to produce self-regulated learners who can more easily change their mind in the future. 


This is also how democracy is supposed to work, but it is also crucial in the new “Learning Economy,” where the value of graduates is becoming less and less about what they have already learned and more about their potential to learn new things and adapt to new information. Education should prepare you for the unknown and for uncertainty, in part, by giving you some standards for your continual pursuit of new truths. 

Educators have always hoped to foster both a desire to seek truth and a tolerance for ambiguity. But we too often allow students to think education is only, or even mostly, about right answers. Our future depends not on more certainty, but on the ability to change our minds in the face of new information, new data, and indeed, new criticism.

Changing your mind is hard, but take a pledge for the new year. Increase your comfort with ambiguity and nuance. Be suspicious of the certainty of others and seek to reduce your own certainty. Before you announce your opinion about something, articulate how it works and not just why you think it is good. Acknowledge that the answer to most good questions is, “It depends” — two simple words that can help you change, and perhaps reestablish that being certain is not the same as being right.

José Antonio Bowen is a former college dean and president and is currently a senior fellow at the Association of American Colleges and Universities. Follow him on Twitter @josebowen.