University’s done a lot for me as a person – Since moving away from home I’ve been forced into situations where I had to go out of my comfort zone, meet new people and deal with my own problems, and that’s lead to me developing as a person and learning to have confidence in myself and in who I am. I could happily sing the benefits of university for days, but there’s one distinctive change in myself that has affected me since my first year.
In my first year, I was forced, due to my choice to take a History and Literature joint course, to take a module on the Enlightenment. They said it was designed to widen our minds –because all through primary, secondary and sixth form we’d been taught to think firmly inside the box, accept everything we were told as fact and produce answers that fulfil certain criteria in the examiner’s mark schemes, the university needed to undo all of that and make us think in a broader way, teach us that nothing is truly right or wrong, nothing is absolute and we should challenge pretty much everything we come across. I absolutely hated it. I wasn’t the type to ponder philosophy, wonder why we are here and how humanity got to the stage it is now. Even worse, the philosophers of the enlightenment era had an odd way of talking; it was all very “what if” and the situation they were writing in – trying to challenge accepted thinking under an absolutist king and a church that executed or exiled anyone that disagreed with them – meant that they were never completely clear about what they were saying. It was a weird experience for me – I’m used to reading history books, and I’m used to interpreting works of fiction, but these were neither here nor there. Needless to say, I was relieved when I could put the whole thing behind me.
But the module did its job, and now I’ve realised it’ll never be behind me. The whole point of the enlightenment was the deconstruction of old, established “knowledge” and the reworking of how “knowledge” should be developed. For any of my readers who aren’t quite up to date on the pre-17th century, knowledge then was built on other accepted knowledge. In general, people did not challenge existing theories on anything, and if they did – well, think of Copernicus. Rather, individuals would expand on the work of other people. The Enlightenment, and those that lead it, argued that this was wrong for a number of reasons, one being that if knowledge is built on uncertain foundations, it too is uncertain (ie. If the knowledge they were working off was wrong to begin with, their knowledge will be wrong too) and that instead we should develop knowledge using scientific method – being able to prove that something exists rather than saying “this is true because that is true.”
Apologies if that went over anyone’s head or talked itself in loops – I had trouble grasping it then, and I have trouble explaining it now. In short, the Enlightenment era argued that you should never blindly accept anything as fact. Colin Blythe, in Subjective vs. Objective Methods in Statistics, states that “knowledge is at best an approximate description of reality, and in the course of progress it gets repeatedly modified and replaced”, that knowledge is simple what the largest number of people agree on at the time. It is never an objective thing, and it is socially constructed, therefore it is never necessarily, objectively true. Because of all this, I’ve learnt never to accept anything as absolutely true, regardless of how qualified the people giving me these ‘facts’ are, because I know that they could easily be wrong. It’s wonderful for me as a person, because I know to constantly challenge what I’ve been told, but it means I’m never entirely satisfied with things, and I end up getting quite angry about certain issues.
A good example of this is weight. Today, our society is obsessed with weight. A massive emphasis is placed on the importance of not being “fat” or obese by everyone from the medical community, to advertisers looking to abuse peoples’ paranoia on the issue, to family and friends who are concerned about their loved ones and their apparent health. Fat is treated as if it’s as deadly as poison and people take it upon themselves to inform absolute strangers, knowing nothing about their lifestyle, that they’re unhealthy and unappealing. But if you look at facts, the dangers of being overweight become questionable – there’s the doubtful usefulness of BMI as a measurement of health and obesity, studies that found it’s more dangerous to be underweight than overweight (and that those who were overweight actually had significantly reduced mortality rates compared to those of ideal BMI), and studies showing that it is absolutely possible to be overweight and perfectly healthy. Why, then, is there such a focus on how bad it is to be overweight, to the point where people with no medical training think it’s acceptable to tell those who are that they are unhealthy? To the point where parents put their children on outrageous diets to make sure they’re not? Why is being overweight treated so bad that people are willing and encouraged to act in incredibly unhealthy ways, despite the evidence that they could be perfectly fine?
To put it simply, university has taught me to doubt everything. Whether they intended to or not, I now question any knowledge I’m presented with, even if everyone else seems to agree with it and especially if it seems to me that there’s something not quite right about what I’m being told. Knowledge isn’t certain, it can be influenced by the opinions of society at the time, by industries with agendas, by individuals wanting to prove a point, and therefore isn’t objectively true. In addition to that, looking back over the years, what is accepted as “knowledge” has changed so much, it’s impossible to accept that what we “know” now is right – Sure, we know that humorism wasn’t right because we understand how the body works a bit more, but who’s to say that the medical information we have now is any more right? That in twenty, fifty, a hundred years in the future, we won’t discover that actually our entire body is operated by alien nanobots, and we get ill because they break down? The knowledge we have now is our best attempt we have at the truth, so we shouldn’t ignore it, but we should never accept it as entirely true, and if something seems wrong or outdated it needs to be challenged.
Of course, this is my opinion based on what I’ve read and accepted. I’m interested in how other people think – personally, I can’t see anything as objective because my education, training as a historian and sources I’ve read have repeatedly told me not to. I’d like to see your opinions in the comments!