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In a labored op-ed last month, New York Times columnist Richard Cohen channeled Donald Trump’s supposed thoughts about fact and fiction. “I know what Americans want,” quoth the fictional Donald, “They don’t want truth.”

Cohen’s flight of fancy casts Trump as both a demagogue and an ass. But the idea that Americans don’t want truth reinforces the notion that we live in a post-factual world.

Trump and Hillary Clinton are symptoms of the disease. The Democratic nominee’s fabrications are at least as egregious as those of the Republican, and probably more so. Remember her interview with Fox News’ Chris Wallace? The one in which she claimed, Pinnochio-like, that FBI Director James Comey confirmed that her answers about her secret email system “were truthful”?

It is not just the presidential race or even American politics more generally that have abandoned truth and facts. For evidence that disdain is widespread, one might cite President Vladimir Putin’s denials last year that Russian military forces were involved in Ukraine.

So, if we live in a post-factual world, why is that?

At least part of the answer is that facts — concrete, objective truth — have been denigrated for generations. Many on the left suggest that in several fields of study there really isn’t any such thing as objective truth. There is only opinion or an unacknowledged, even unwitting, agenda.

When French philosopher Michel Foucault, godfather of our post-factual world, was presented with a statement, his response was not to ask whether it was true but to ask who was saying it. All “facts,” this line of thinking insists, are tainted by the agenda of the person delivering them.

Which brings us to the messed-up intellectual culture of our universities. Raging debate over “safe spaces” raises the issue of what a university is for. Answers from both the Left and Right, sadly, owe much to Foucault and his devaluation of facts.

Left-wing demands for “trigger warnings,” for example, stem from decades of teaching students to see every issue through the lenses of race, class and gender, each of which calls established truth into question and can render facts irrelevant.

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But conservatives have also gone astray. Frustrated by demands for trigger warnings, safe spaces, etc., conservatives tend to argue that the whole purpose of university is to challenge assumptions and train young people to be critical thinkers. This is true up to a point. But to suggest that this is the purpose of university is a grave mistake, and ignores their equally important purpose of passing knowledge from one generation to the next.

It used to be understood that universities were there not simply or primarily to train people in argument, but to bequeath facts, knowledge and truth to people not yet possessed of them. They are the bounty of our civilization and other civilizations, available to everyone. Universities, having accumulated knowledge for centuries, are the great repositories of human understanding.

There is no good reason for each generation to reinvent the wheel. But we now force each generation to do so by obsessively picking holes in the wisdom of previous generations. We are training young people not just to accept, but to demand, a post-factual world.

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