One College Course That Could Change Cultural Debates for the Better

books college class epistemology

What one class would you require every college student to take?

There are an infinite number of responses to that question from the personal (I wish I could fix cars) to the practical (everyone needs to know how to handle money). But after watching a recent viral video and reading the responses, I’m more convinced the most needed class is one most people have never heard of.

Before leaving college or even high school, I believe every student should be required to take (and pass) epistemology. It’s that important.

At its simplest, epistemology is just the study of how we know things. How can we gain or claim knowledge? What does it mean to know something?

If you haven’t seen this video of interviews with University of Washington students, it reveals more than anything else the need for an understanding of epistemology. These students have no idea how they came to believe what they believe.

When discussing these types of videos, we should be honest and admit they are edited by someone with a specific point of view. He may have cut out responses from individuals that gave better answers. He obviously didn’t speak to everyone on campus. This is not a scientific polling of college students, so we should not extrapolate huge claims.

But the video does bring up broader issues that we can see throughout culture. The point this video makes is not, “See, transgenderism is nonsense,” even if most people sharing it take it this way. (The video’s creator actually made this point on Twitter.) It’s much deeper than that.

No, the most effective point the video makes is the inability of the college students to speak about truth and knowledge beyond an appeal to personal feelings. It reveals they are, in some ways, uncritical products of their culture.

That’s not exclusive to a certain group of impressionable college students. At some point, everyone falls back on cultural assumptions and unthinking talking points when confronted with difficult questions we haven’t thought much about.

For many Christians, we can simply assert, “The Bible says so; that makes it true,” without considering questions about biblical interpretation and application. It may very well be the case that when the Bible tells me to love my enemy it is correct, but I may not know how to work that specific command out in my life and I may have no understand of why the Bible is truthful in all that it says.

In the same way, there may be an argument for why this short, white guy can be a tall, Asian woman. It probably won’t be a good argument, but it’s something that can be done. That’s not what most of these students are doing, however. They are simply saying, “If you feel that way, that makes it truth.”

They have a belief—internal feelings trump external expectations—but they don’t really understand the why or the how of that. They see that belief as an accepted cultural truth, so they haven’t thought much beyond that.

The video interviewer starts with transgender bathroom use, an accepted belief on most secular college campuses, and moves to the absurd for a specific reason. Much of the argumentation around the acceptance and public affirmation of gay marriage and transgenderism has centered on the personal feelings of the individuals involved.

“Because I feel attracted to someone from the same sex that, therefore, means this is inherently right for me.”

“I’ve never felt at home in my physical gender, therefore I will only find fulfillment in life if I transition and live as a member of the opposite gender.”

These statements are making an unstated assumption—my feelings are infallible. Most often there is no real basis for accepting this belief. It’s simply stated as if it were obviously true.

But that can’t be the case. We all know instances where our feelings are wrong, even if they are powerful. Someone may have an intense desire to cheat on their spouse. That desire does not negate the moral responsibility they have to remain faithful.

Everyone can remember a time when they, following their feelings, were a jerk to a family member or friend. Eventually, you come to regret obeying your internal feelings and recognize it would have been better to ignore them.

The previous statement is not automatically an argument against a gay or lesbian person following their sexual orientation or a transgender person seeking to live life as a different gender, those arguments take different forms. It does demonstrate, however, there are instances where our feelings are not infallible. They can (and do) sometimes lead us astray.

But as the public discussions surrounding being gay and transgender have focused almost exclusively on assertions of personal autonomy (I am the ultimate and sole authority of what is right for me) and the supremacy of personal feelings (You have no right to tell me my feelings are wrong), many have no way of understanding where to draw the line on when feelings can be trusted.

From their perspective, if truth is defined by personal feelings, why then can feelings not then decree a short, white guy is a tall, Asian woman, regardless of any counter, external evidence?

I happen to agree that issues of same sex attraction and gender dysphoria are much different than a short person trying to convince you they are actually tall. But these students have no framework to make that distinction because all they have been taught is to base their understanding of truth on an individual’s feelings.

From this perspective, a belief is true if it corresponds to the personal feelings of happiness. It doesn’t matter if it has no correspondence to clear, external facts about reality. If this man claims to be a tall Chinese woman in the first grade, there is no way to dispute him if we give all the weight to his feelings—even when his claims are obviously ridiculous.

This is where the college students in the video exist—in the tension of their cultural assumptions about feelings and the clear absurdity of the claims made. Without an understanding of epistemology and how we can gain knowledge, these students will be left knowing that man was wrong, but having no idea why or how that could be the case.

This is not simply a problem for these college students or that generation. This is a problem we all must confront and address as we all feel the cultural pull toward this type of thinking.

Even if you can’t go back to college and take a class on epistemology, you can fix the potential problem in your life. It’s simple—know what you believe and know why you believe it. Yes, that takes time and effort, but otherwise, even if you never show up on a viral video, you will be in the same situation as those college students.

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Aaron Earls

Christian. Husband. Daddy. Writer. Online editor for Facts & Trends Magazine. Fan of quick wits, magical wardrobes, brave hobbits, time traveling police boxes & Blue Devils.