“Fear of truth” is opposite courage

Ever since writing TSVOTEP I have had the sense that “fear” is not the opposite of courage. Fear is a survival reflex. Therefore, my new perspective is that fear is sometimes a good thing. That makes it different from the five other vices of ignorance, intellectual incompetence, weak character, pride and selfishness; none of which are ever good things. (Regarding the last one, selfishness is not a vice if a person’s basic needs for food, shelter and belonging have not been met.)

So, what is the opposite of courage? Everyone is fearful of things that can harm them, and they should be. Is there something that never should be feared? And would fearing that something be a vice that emerges from weak character? The opposite of courage is not the general feeling of fear, but the specific “fear of truth.”

An example is an addict’s denial. Until denial (fear of truth) becomes acceptance, treatment can’t be successful because denial blocks the courage needed to overcome addiction.

How is this vice modeled and taught in schools? An example is the recent circuit court decision that upheld parents’ and school boards’ rights to shield students from truth.


I am not saying the decision to censor school lessons was wrong. I am saying school censorship models and teaches fear of truth. It is common in schools — done in the name of “appropriately” educating youth. What is appropriate is whatever people believe it is, and everybody has a different belief. The school board fired a teacher for allowing students to read material that included controversial truths — ones they were afraid of.

The decision says school boards can shield students from truth, when its members’ fear of that truth leads them to believe it could harm students. There you have it — fear of truth modeled and taught to students.

Fear of truth is modeled and taught in other situations, too. One of these is discussed in TSVOTEP (pages 116-117), where I described a truth most of us were never taught — that our ignorance is always infinitely greater than our knowledge. If this is true, why isn’t it taught in schools? Do educators fear this truth? Do they fear it because they were taught to fear it? Do educators model this fear to students? We have a slang term for the experience of a person who ignores it — he/she was “blind-sided.”

Our focus on standardized testing models and teaches fear of this truth, too. Given all the rewards showered on those who correctly answer “A,” “B,” “C,” or “D,” these testing experiences hide the truth that what students don’t know is infinitely greater than the knowledge they use to get a correct answer. I have never seen that explained in the testing materials; even though, of course, it is true.

Another example of fearing truth is how high school educators stay away from (or retreat from) knowing the truth about student drinking and drug use. They avoid teenagers on weekends and they don’t ask students about the rumors they hear. When tempted to inquire about the truth of student use, they find shelter in two unwritten rules of school bureaucracy: (1) A public school teacher’s job is to prepare students to correctly answer standardized test questions. (2) Whatever a teacher (principal) does for one, he/she must do for all.

I am not sure why we have this second rule, but I heard it all the time when I was a high school principal. Students said, “You can’t do that to me because you didn’t do it to Mary (or Sally, or Joe, etc.).” Bureaucratic norms such as these give teachers and principals good reason to retreat — a retreat that models fear of truth.

This is not an intellectual vice that is being modeled and taught. It is a character vice. The modeling and teaching occur in the character of the teacher, not in the lesson. “Fear of truth” emerges from character weakness and prevents the courageous actions needed to make situations better.

This is an important correction.

Fear is not always a vice, and it is sometimes a good thing. Fear of truth, however, is never a good thing. It may be the greatest vice taught in schools, and it may be the most powerful of all school teachings.

Footnote: Teaching as a Subversive Activity addresses related topics. Re-reading it helped me understand that fear of truth is the vice that is the opposite courage.


#1 street self defense on 02.20.11 at 7:06 pm

Hey thanks for the great article i just bookmarked your feed and will be on the look out for new articles.

#2 Kevin Matuseski on 02.23.11 at 8:49 pm

I definitely see now that “fear of truth” is a vice. It makes more sense to look at it in that way.

#3 “Fears of truths” clarified — Six Virtues of the Educated Person on 09.17.12 at 9:30 pm

[…] an earlier blog I argued that the vice opposite courage is “fear of truth” because truth is the one thing we […]

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