The Trouble with Truth is not that no one believes it — but that we all believe different versions.
The Muhlenberg Center for Ethics, whose goal is to promote reflection and discussion on individual moral responsibilities, each year pairs with Dana scholars — one of the scholars programs at Muhlenberg — and faculty in all departments to develop a program of speakers whose talks follow a collaborative theme. This year their speakers focused on Troubling Truth, or as Dr. Lora Taub-Pervizpour, co-Director of the program Associate Dean of Digital Learning put it, upsetting our notions of our perceived reality, or truth.
“It is not the aim of the program to present any truths — the speakers were not selected, that is, to profess a truth,” said Taub. “It is the aim … to bring to campus a series of speakers who help us ‘trouble’ truths that are often unreflected upon and taken for granted as truths. Indeed, the purpose of this theme has been to cultivate the habits of critical inquiry that are central to a liberal arts education. To take the title of the program literally is to misinterpret its meaning.”
“It is not the aim of the program to present any truths — the speakers were not selected, that is, to profess a truth,” said Taub.
The series kicked off this fall with William Mazzarella, who asked “Why is Trump so enjoyable?” and Janaya Khan, founder of Black Lives Matter Canada, both of whom packed the auditoriums to the point of overflow. Susan Stryker, the founder of transgender studies, spoke the following week on her research. Also on the docket was Stephen Prothero, who discussed Religion and Politics, Achy Obejas, who read from her novel on Cuba, along with a common hour performance of Dreamscape. The first two speakers this semester included Dr. Sa’ed Atshan, whose talk on Palestinian Christians stirred conversation, as 30 percent of the College’s students are Jewish, and Elaine McMillion Sheldon, who showcased her latest documentary on the heroin crisis.
Dana scholars, as part of the program, provide a majority of the student input in deciding on the next year’s topic. Jonathan Walker ‘18, one of the scholars, was involved in the development of this year’s theme. This current program is far from its original draft, which was titled the Trivialization of Truth, explained Walker.
After submitting the finalized draft, Walker left for summer vacation under the impression that the topic would change minimally from there.
“I got to campus in the fall and they had the posters up for ‘Troubling Truth.’ I didn’t know this, but this is part of what they do,” said Walker. “I thought the Dana students come up with a topic, and they just use that to come up with speakers. What happens is we give them a topic how we want, then they workshop it how the directors want to shape the program.”
After the Dana scholars propose a theme, then the faculty directors take on the actual program — responsibilities shared this year by Taub and Dr. Maura Finkelstein, who then revise the proposal and reach out to all disciplines. They then suggested and selected speakers based on availability and affordability.
To get as many faculty involved as possible, the original theme needed to be broadened, explained Taub.
“I had suggested [Shapiro and Peterson] because I thought they might bring a different perspective on the theme. It would still be speaking to something very relevant to the idea of Troubling Truth,” Said Walker.
“It was a process of engaging with what the Dana scholars proposed and trying to imagine it on a larger scale that is more inclusive, potentially, for a variety of faculty who we want to connect their courses up to it,” said Taub. “So, for example, Media and Communication faculty were quite interested in The Trivialization of Truth because it connects to a number of courses that were already examining the rise of fake news. But we were also interested in faculty from other diverse disciplines being able to find a way into this question. And we thought that the particular focus on the Trivialization of Truth was more narrow, and that Troubling Truth could encompass Trivialization of Truth but didn’t stop there.”
They strive to retain as much as they can from the original proposal, added Finkelstein.
“It was a really collaborative process of thinking about what’s at the heart of the questions that the Dana scholar proposal
was putting forward,” said Finkelstein, “not just at the language that’s in the title and the abstract can open up a larger conversation.”
Walker believes, though, that students should be more involved in the selection of speakers, which the Center is working on improving. Walker had returned in the fall and suggested additional speakers. He was interested in bringing in Ben Shapiro, a conservative commentator and podcaster, or Jordan Peterson, a Canadian clinical psychologist.
“I had suggested [Shapiro and Peterson] because I thought they might bring a different perspective on the theme. It would still be speaking to something very relevant to the idea of Troubling Truth, but they would kind of bring a different perspective,” said Walker. “Some of them, I guess, would be considered slightly more conservative-leaning just as an interesting contrast to see what someone on the other side might have to offer to that discussion of Troubling Truth.”
Taub explained that they did not have the resources to accommodate these speakers, since a college visit rarely requires just an hour on campus, but instead includes meals, class visits, public relations, and travel costs.
“The [Center for Ethics] budget is limited and a speaker like Ben Shapiro is out of reach for us on those terms alone,” said Taub. “I shared this with Jonathan, as well as explaining that the Center for Ethics does not select speakers on the basis of their ideology. I did suggest Jonathan consider other funding sources at the College that interested students might explore to support bringing speakers to campus. Finally, once a program is established and speakers are invited, contracts signed, etc., we cannot easily add further speakers.”
In preparation for next year, the Center’s final event is a student reflection group, organized by Rachel Liberty ‘18. Students are encouraged to reach out to her, as the date has not been scheduled as of the time of print.
Students can also bring in a speaker sponsored by their club through 25Live, after receiving approval from Seegers Union and/ or Student activities, and organizing contacts, budget, payment, security and facility.