What is Truth?

“What is Truth?”.  I’m sure Pontius Pilate was not the first person to ask that question as he interrogated Jesus Christ (John 18:38).  He was almost certainly following the tradition of Greek philosophers such as Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, and the question continues to engage thinkers – and school leaders - today.

Why should we care about having a serious discussion to understand truth?  We should because simply complaining about post-truth, or fake news in the abstract, without attempting to define what truth really means, and without examining actionable responses, does not ease our society’s emerging culture war.  It inflames it.

As a response to this challenge, I would like to offer two personal experiences that relate to this question before circling back to its significance for school boards and senior managers.

Every time I visit Pyongyang, North Korea’s capital city, I try to visit the Grand People’s Study House.  Located in the heart of the city on Kim Il Sung Square, and by far the largest and most extravagant building in this key central location, the Grand People’s Study House serves as both the nation’s central library and an adult education centre.  

The statistics of the building (600 rooms) and the collection of books (some 30 million books, 60% of which are in foreign languages) were mind-boggling.   Unusually in North Korea, it has access to the nationally developed intranet (although not the global internet of course).

I recall one visit where I visited a number of reading rooms, a lecture hall and other facilities, all decorated with huge portraits of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il overlooking those who were seated below, before being invited into an English language class.  After first observing the class, I was encouraged to engage in small group conversations with the students, which was informative, enjoyable and impressive for the high standard of English spoken by many of the students.  I really had put on my thinking cap as I was asked questions such as “what is the difference between a shopping mall and a department store?”, “in what ways are theme parks different from amusement parks or fun fairs?” and “why would someone want an electronic organiser when they have a mobile phone?”.  These students were not the mindless robotic images that are frustratingly and wrongly portrayed so often by the foreign press.

One facility in the Grand People’s Study House that particularly appealed to me was the ‘ask the expert room’.  The idea is that if anyone has any questions about what they are reading or studying, they can go to this special room and ask “an expert who knows everything” about the subject.  On the day of my visit, I decided to use this service, as it is not every day that one has the opportunity to speak with “an expert who knows everything”.  I found the “expert, seemingly quite lonely in his large, spartan office. 

Expert in the Grand People's Study House, Pyongyang, DPRK

I was told the “expert who knows everything” would be able to answer any question, so I decided to pose Pilate’s question – “What is Truth?”  

He seemed very puzzled by the question.  I quickly got the idea that this question is not commonly discussed in North Korea.  He furrowed his brow, shuffled in his chair, and after what seemed like an excessively protracted delay responded simply with “Such questions should not exist”.  And that was the end of our discussion on the matter.

This experience in Pyongyang contrasts markedly with the second personal experience I would like to share.

In 1993 I was attending the annual conference of Heads of International Baccalaureate (IB) schools in Buenos Aires, Argentina.  In one of the sessions, each of the Vice-Chancellors of Argentine universities was asked to speak for about 5 minutes on the skills that he/she believed schools should be doing better to prepare students more adequately for university.  Some spoke about global awareness, some about time management, some about maths and science skills, and so on.  The responses were illuminating and well-received.

But one response made an especially deep impression on me, and I suspect upon everyone present.  One Vice-Chancellor stood up, looked at us, spoke just one sentence, and sat down again.  I have never forgotten this sentence, which was his entire speech (it is not often that I memorise someone’s entire speech!).

He simply said this: “We need students who understand the difference between truth and consensus”. 

IB Heads of Schools Conference, Buenos Aires, Argentina, 1993

His simple sentence points to the crucially important contrast between two concepts of truth – correspondence truth and coherence truth, and moreover, how important it is for schools (and therefore school leaders) to understand the implications of the contrast.

This is not the place for a detailed treatise on truth.  The essence of the difference, however, is this:

In the Correspondence Theory of Truth, a statement is true if and only if it corresponds to a fact.  The fact should be independent of language, society and culture.  Therefore, “Grass is green” is true if and only if the grass is green.

Truth thus depends on how things are, factually, in the world, not on what an authority says is true or how a person feels.  This was the basis of the scientific revolution in the 17th century.

On the other hand, this notion of truth contains some shortcomings.  For example, we do not always have enough information to know whether something is a fact.  Furthermore, correspondence can’t be perfect because of the gap between language and the world.  Moreover, truth can’t really be determined in isolation from other propositions.

In the Coherence Theory of Truth, a statement is true if it is consistent with other true statements within a belief system.  Whereas Correspondence truth-seekers go out and look for evidence, adherents of coherence truth sit and think about consistency.  Therefore, in the coherence theory of truth, the statement “the world is flat” was once true because it conformed to the broad consensus of how people viewed the world, but it is no longer true.  

The Coherence Theory of Truth is a useful approach in legal cases (and school discipline investigations) where all the facts may not be not known.  It is effective in situations where empirical evidence may be impossible to obtain or measure, such as the evidence underpinning a religious belief.

However, this notion of truth also contains some shortcomings.  For instance, coherence may be necessary for truth, but it is not sufficient.  Fairy tales may be coherent but they are not true.  Furthermore, any crazy belief or lie can be made to appear coherent and gain consensus if truth is reduced to the level of an opinion poll.

Of course, correspondence and coherence are not the only approaches to finding truth, and other less common approaches include pragmatism, fundamentalism and relativism.  Like correspondence and coherence, these approaches also have their own advantages and disadvantages.  

School boards and leaders have an obligation to seek truth and to operate within its parameters.  As George Orwell said, “In a time of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act”.  But which approach, or approaches, should be followed to discern authentic truth – and in which circumstances?

Given society’s accelerating drift towards “post-truth” and “fake news”, understanding truth has never been more important.  To address this need for schools and boards, Optimal School Governance has developed an enjoyable, thought-provoking, leadership-oriented, four-hour workshop on Truth to enhance the effectiveness of school boards, principals and senior leaders.  

-Dr Stephen Codrington

To initiate a conversation about arranging a workshop on “Truth” for your board or school leadership team, send an e-mail to Stephen Codrington at [email protected].

In addition, we offer a range of workshops that address many matters relating to enhancing the quality of school leadership and board governance, including 11 NESA-approved workshops specifically tailored for schools in New South Wales.

You may also be interested in previous articles which are archived at https://optimalschool.com/articles.html.