Given that 2016 was the year of ‘post-truth’ and fake news, the need has never been greater to understand individuals’ understanding of truth, methods of validating knowledge and their beliefs about the relationship between self, information and authority. Since Berger and Luckmann (1967), the notion that meaning is socially constructed has been widely received, as has the recognition that political rhetoric has the power to engage and manipulate public opinion (Fairclough, 1989). ‘Post-truth’ is predicated on the assumptions that individuals’ emotive and belief systems are constructions that are socially manipulable and are more powerful than individuals’ cognitive ability to ascertain truth through reason. These notions contradict the idea of the university (Barnett, 2011; Thompson, 2014), in which the primacy of truth and knowledge is axiomatic, and whose mission includes the production of a civic body able to resist emotional manipulation through the development of their dispositions towards “com[ing] to know the truth” (Barnett, 2009).
To many educators, the statement that “Students at 18 years of age think differently from those at 22” seems intuitively right; university graduating students typically exhibit a cognitive maturity that is largely missing in their younger colleagues. The development of sophisticated forms of cognition in today’s post-truth world cannot be overemphasised. Educational psychology researchers have grappled with the descriptive question of what constitutes cognitive growth, with the developmental question of how this growth can be fostered more effectively and with the methodological question of how growth can be measured. In this presentation, Smiley outlines these issues and suggests some methods of developing epistemic sophistication in the language classroom.