Relativism and Absolutism: Keeping College Students Involved in the Examination of Truth

By Garrison, Charles E. | College Student Journal, December 2001 | Go to article overview

Relativism and Absolutism: Keeping College Students Involved in the Examination of Truth


Garrison, Charles E., College Student Journal


Grappling with what is real and true is an important academic experience for college teachers and students alike. A form of relativism ("whose to say what is true?") and absolutism ("truth is always tree in every situation") represent opposing views students bring to the college classroom. Data on prevalence of relativism and absolutism are presented. Five principles and three processes of application are provided to suggest a bridge connecting the respective views and to provide an effective learning environment for college students. The result is that college professors can engage students in meaningful dialogue independently of their perspectives.

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In every college class, the backdrop of thought involves the questions: What is truth? What is knowledge? What data are convincing? Allan Bloom declared in his best-selling critique of higher education, The Closing of the American Mind, that almost every student at the best colleges believes that truth is relative and that no one has the right to say that one idea is better than another (1987,25-26). Devine added that "all who teach college students can confirm the accuracy of Bloom's contention" (1989,109);

Student "relativism" has been described as occurring when students "respond to all argument with the supposed rebuttal, `Well, that's what you think.'" (Clark, 1984,6). Alternatively, relativistic thought may occur in non-confrontational conversation or silently when students assume that knowledge is subjective. Garrison (1995) found that the resources students utilize to make important relationship decisions are those of individual introspection--their own feelings, thoughts, and satisfactions. Students also lacked appreciation for professional expertise, principles, maxims, traditional values, or empirical findings as resources. They firmly believe that there are no objective criteria for knowledge and one is best to follow one's own internal self.

Among college faculty, the traditional approach to subject matter has been that of the Enlightenment view--the idea that there is a world of "Reality" to be discovered and understood no matter how difficult the process. This "critical realism" looks for propositions supported by evidence and arrived at by a critical examination of data. Ideas, according to this perspective, must be critiqued and evaluated by data (Polkinghorne, 1998:xviii).

There are also students who are absolutists believing that this "Enlightenment realism" is destructively relativistic. When subject matter seems to question these absolutes, these students may suspend their participation or poise for attack. Francis Schaeffer, for example, is often cited for his comment that "modern men, in the absence of absolutes, have polluted all aspects of morality, making standards completely hedonistic and relativistic" (Hamilton, 1997,30). These attacks are not from religious fundamentalists alone. There are secular humanists who argue that "to embrace social relativism is to reject the notion of universal human rights"--absolute premises which they vigorously defend (Vaughn, 1997, 40). For example, Haynor and Varacalli attack sociology contending that it "implies the philosophy of moral relativism and derogates the status of the moral" (1993, 18). Thus, in addition to the "whose to say?" relativists there are both secular and religious students demanding that the class material not "critique my absolutes".

This forgoing portrait of the college classroom is one of a professor seeking to examine subject matter empirically while students believe that the material is either "just someone's opinion" or that the critique itself is destructive. To what degree is this portrait accurate and what effective learning strategies for college students might be useful for college faculty?

How Relativistic? How Absolutist?: Some Data

The Barna Research Group, Ltd., an independent marketing research company based in Glendale, California, gathered data in 1990 and 1992 on 18 to 27 year olds. …

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