Truth at the Core

By Rachel Morrison
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In 1965, U.S. diplomat to Taiwan George H. Kerr published Formosa Betrayed, a detailed account of the 2/28 Incident. After Japan’s surrender at the end of World War II, the Kuomintang-led government of the Republic of China was given control of the island of Taiwan. Government seizure of private property and economic mismanagement led to simmering Taiwanese resentment that erupted into protest on February 28, 1947, when a widow suspected of selling contraband cigarettes was beaten by authorities. Thousands of Taiwanese were massacred in the ensuing violence, and the event marked the beginning of the 38-year period of political suppression and mass imprisonment of the Taiwanese political and intellectual elite known as the White Terror.

Yet it wasn’t until nearly two decades later, with the release of Formosa Betrayed, that the English-speaking world learned about this atrocity, and it was nearly 10 years after that that the account was published in Chinese. The book was banned in Taiwan until the late 1980s, and possession of it was a treasonable offense.

“Speaking of the incident publicly in Taiwan could result in being ‘vanished,’” explains Winston Ou, Elizabeth Hubert Malott Endowed Chair for the Core Curriculum in Interdisciplinary Humanities and associate professor of mathematics, whose parents left Taiwan to pursue their educations in the U.S. during the long period of martial law after the massacre. “My own parents never mentioned this history to me, despite having seen it themselves, until I was in college. So, I have thought about the suppression of truth, how the truth ultimately emerges, and what happens when truth is suppressed for so long.”

This history was one of many on Ou’s mind when he conceived of Histories of the Present: Truth as the theme for the next three years of Scripps’ Core Curriculum in Interdisciplinary Humanities Core I program. Core I provides a common academic experience for each entering class of first-year students. Beginning this fall, the program will comprise weekly lectures from diverse disciplines that explore truth from a variety of perspectives as well as discussion sections and writing workshops. For Ou, this interdisciplinary structure is part of the strength of Core.

“As a faculty participant, one learns a tremendous amount by listening to colleagues give lectures and then leading discussions. Each discipline has its own values and cautions; students learn not just an immense amount of content
but also those many ways of thinking,” says Ou.

He is aware that the notion of universal truth is problematic, which is why exploring the concept of truth itself is built into the curriculum. “Many of the lectures will be on the problems of imposing truth on others or using truth as a justification to take advantage of people,” he says. “These aren’t necessarily the questions about truth that arise in mathematics, but these questions are critical. Who has the authority to decide the truth? What if you disagree?”

Assistant Professor of Anthropology Gabriela Morales is tackling these questions in a lecture titled “Truth and the Colonial Enterprise.” “We’ll be thinking a lot about the connection between knowledge and power, including in the present day,” she says. “We’ll be addressing questions such as: Who gets to produce knowledge about others? And on what terms? How do social and historical conditions shape the  ways researchers ask questions and interpret data?”

Students will be reading an excerpt from Audra Simpson’s Mohawk Interruptus: Political Life Across the Borders of Settler States, which describes how early-20th-century anthropologists created a narrative about the Kahnawà:ke Mohawk—members of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy whose territory lies across the border of what is now the U.S. and Canada—as a native people who were about to disappear. Simpson shows how this framing was tied to a settler colonial project of acquiring indigenous territory. Though anthropologists at the time were convinced they were writing the objective truth, their work was ultimately a projection of their own desires and an effort to fit what they observed into a dominant paradigm of knowledge.

“My hope is that the lecture will encourage students to think critically—not only as consumers of information in class, but also in their daily lives. I hope they’ll be able to better assess the conditions under which knowledge is generated. And, as producers of knowledge themselves, through research papers and senior theses, I’d like them to reflect on how they frame questions and represent the people and places about which they are writing,” Morales says.

For his Core I lecture, Assistant Professor of German Kevin Vennemann, who also serves as the assistant director of Core, will be lecturing on Art Spiegelman’s 1986 graphic novel Maus, widely considered to be one of the canonical memoirs of Holocaust survival. His lecture will explore the extent to which we can rely on memory as a truthful recording device, especially in the context of trauma, and how veracious an artistic representation of devastating memories could possibly be.

But how do we make inquiries into the nature and forms of truth from a mathematics perspective? “In mathematics, one explores truth with intuition; one validates it via proofs. But beyond that, we also use mathematics to model reality. Now, these models are backed by math but do not necessarily contain truth,” explains Ou. To teach this point, his lecture will be based partially on the book Weapons of Math Destruction by Cathy O’Neil, which gives examples and analysis of the misapplication of big data and machine learning in society.

Everything from the targeted ads that populate our computer screens to our ability to get a credit card is governed by big data. But its sheer prevalence and power to make or break lives is not widely known. Many courts, for example, use Correctional Offender Management Profiling for Alternative Sanctions (COMPAS) software to help determine whether incarcerated individuals should be paroled. Information about the individual is entered into the software, and an algorithm estimates a recidivism rate—the percentage chance that the individual will commit another crime if paroled. Yet, a recent ProPublica investigation revealed that COMPAS has been shown to give a higher probability of re-offense to black individuals than to white individuals, all other things being equal.

“The problem is that the model was based on data that incorporates certain biases,” says Ou. Similarly, there is the example of Amazon’s attempt to use machine-learning systems to evaluate candidates for technical positions. Using historical data from previously hired, successful employees to create the algorithms, it was supposed to provide an unbiased evaluation of prospective new hires. You can guess how that went: “That model ended up being chauvinistic. It favored male applicants, because it had been fed a decade’s worth of data from a real world that is also chauvinistic,” says Ou.

“There is a difference between understanding and modeling,” he concludes. “Modeling is replication. Understanding is truth.”

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A Brief History of Core

The Core Curriculum has been a hallmark of a Scripps education since 1926, although it has undergone many transformations since its inception. Its first iteration was a three-year sequence of interdisciplinary courses called the Humanities, constituting half of students’ coursework.

By the 1960s, however, the Humanities sequence had been reduced to just one year, due in part to students’ desire for more academic flexibility. During the 1970s, faculty began talks to reinstitute the three-year sequence, but because student interest was shifting away from the humanities and toward the social and natural sciences, the effort faltered.

The College responded to this shift by developing an interdisciplinary model with liberal arts at the center. “In the future,” prophesied then-president E. Howard Brooks about the change, “Scripps will perhaps be described as a residential liberal arts college for women with a strong central core in the humanities and arts.” Building on momentum that had been growing throughout the 1980s and ’90s, Scripps faculty developed and ran a pilot course for the Class of 1999 and began teaching a full three-semester Core Curriculum in Interdisciplinary Humanities sequence to the Class of 2000.

The sequence, now in its 24th year, is organized around enduring topics such as the role of community, the concept of truth, and the causes and consequences of violence, providing students with a humanistic perspective on the biggest questions of our time. Faculty from across the disciplines introduce students to a number of different methods and ways of knowing, and enable students to work across the disciplines as they connect to the central theme, underscoring how present debates and questions are shaped by rich and complicated histories.

Nearly 30 years later, Brooks’ declaration has proven prescient. “Although Scripps students take classes in and major in a wide array of disciplines, including the humanities, arts, social sciences, and natural sciences, all Scripps students and alumnae have in common a grounding in and appreciation of the humanities in part because of Core,” says President Lara Tiedens.

With support from a $2 million grant from the Malott Family Foundation to establish the Elizabeth Hubert Malott Endowed Chair for the Core Curriculum in Interdisciplinary Humanities, Core is firmly entrenched as Scripps’ signature interdisciplinary approach to learning. Students say the program is one of their most valuable experiences, calling it “eye-opening” and “mind-expanding.”