The Role of Education in a post-truth world
It’s scary to think that with the rise of what has now become a household word, ‘fake news’ is officially a threat to the future of humanity.
More so in the United States, but also a growing concern in many other countries, ‘news stories’ that reinforce existing beliefs and political leanings shared through social media are sadly becoming the norm. The amount of stories we see shared online from reputable news sources that employ professional investigative journalists are now in the minority.
The internet exists for people to create, to express their opinion, and to find like minded people, but this basic tenet of net neutrality and the viral nature of information propagation erodes the concept of an informed citizenry and by extension civil engagement, and democracy itself.
For educators, the question is not “when will this go away?”, but “How do we educate young people to be sufficiently active in their civil engagement?”
The first step is to examine history, and to look at why we know the things we know about past wars, past political events, past environmental disasters, and past historical figures. It’s a very basic question that most of us until now have taken for granted. In a time when a story on Facebook carries as much intellectual weight as something on the front page of USA Today, basic information literacy and and examination of sources should now be a part of the curriculum.
Extending beyond the history of events and past conflicts, we must engage with our students and help them reconnect with the concept truth and what truth means when it comes to medicine, science and all forms of critical, and replicable inquiry. How were some diseases wiped from the face of the earth? Who was responsible and what gave these people the skills to perform such a feat?
In a post-truth world, as we all know from experience, we can’t simply tell someone the truth and have them change their position, they must arrive at the correct conclusion themselves. But how to do this in an educational setting?
The first part of this journey is to present a fact that no one will dispute, and pick apart why we know it’s true. An example could be, the earth is round. Framing a discussion around why this is true, and exploring what the ‘truth’ was 2000 years ago, can help to introduce the connections between critical inquiry and observable fact. Why did people believe the earth was flat? Where did they get their information from? What changed over the years to lead humanity to the correct answer?
A big part of the skills that any young person (and older for that matter) is the ability to differentiate between sources and determine which is more valid. The relativity of truth is something many struggle with, including myself, but an event through different lenses is the first step in opening a door into critical inquiry. Who said what about event X? Who said something different about it? Why do you think they said that? What information did they have? Where did they get that information?
Digging deeper into the multiple perspectives that innately exist in our world will demonstrate that there are multiple viewpoints on the same event that many different people observed. Once this has been established, credibility must then be explored.
Credibility is arguably the most important aspect of determining whether something is true or false. A useful exercise is to present an object, a story or an image that is intentionally multi-dimensional, meaning that everyone will see something different in it. A good example is the face / vase shown below.
Is this image a face or a vase, or both at the same time? In this case every observer is just as credible as another. There is no expertise that leads to an objective truth, and sometimes this is the nature of history.
To present another situation, we can focus again on the round earth fact. If someone has better information, that others can replicate, does that make them more credible? Why? For those who argue the earth is flat, how does their evidence stack up to the alternative explanation?
From here we can start to ask other questions that build credibility in sources.
- What’s better, a first-hand account or a second-hand? Why?
- What does each author or viewpoint have to gain from holding a certain position? Are their political, personal, religious motivations for these viewpoints?
- What do opposing sides stand to lose if they concede to the other party?
Critical Inquiry and Analysis
In many areas in the United States, the fundamentals of science are now taboo, and educators are unable to discuss certain topics such as Evolution, the age of the earth and others, under threat of losing their jobs.
Many of us find this turn of events incredibly scary, not simply because of the devaluation of science and the scientific method, but as an affront to critical inquiry itself. If educators are unable to present facts, or even encourage young people to question the validity of information they encounter, real journalism will die out, to make room for ‘fake news’, and even propaganda.
The core of fighting this possible future is to place more emphasis on critical analysis, and maybe even more emphasis on the analysis part. Students in high school and even in university sometimes have a challenging time drawing their own conclusions from information they find. More often than not, they simply recite conclusions made by others, instead of making their own and having to justify them.
This skill is something that can be explored, discussed and built upon in the classroom over time, as it is essential to self determination, and civic engagement. If a citizen is unable to determine if something is false, they won’t understand the wider impacts of the falsehood.
Deferring to Experts
Humility must play role in the acceptance of fact. Without humility and deferment of judgement to experts, there can be no facts. While humility isn’t something that can be taught, deferring to experts is something that can be instilled as the right choice.
An example scenario that can be posed is related to medical care. If you’re sick, who would you trust with your health care, a doctor or a baker? Why? What makes the doctor more credible and trustworthy? Emphasizing trust in expertise in medicine, and making the leap to other fields such as seismology may be difficult for some people, but it’s a good way to introduce the concept and set precedents between fields.
If the school in which we teach allows, we can move on to make the connection between this trust and climate science, or this trust and autism or even our perception of politicians, though these discussions may be much more challenging.
Guiding and Discussing
Now more than ever, conversations need to be had around the difference between belief and fact. Just because we believe something that does not make it true. Though there are some areas of ones life, such as faith, that demand belief over scientific truth, an understanding and discussion of why this is so can help to confronts the threats we face in today’s world, including everything from racism to climate change.
No one likes to be told they’re wrong, and education is not the only solution to this, curation of content on social media, leadership from our elected officials and media outlets should play an equal role in this effort. Without the ability to see the world for what it really is and be able to engage with it on those terms, the threat to the continued existence of democracy is very real.
Discussions, not witch-hunts are needed. Compromise, not accusations of idiocy and ignorance will move the conversation forward. Sometimes progress can be made by opening a discussion with “You’re wrong”, but more often than not, it moves further and faster with “I don’t agree, and here’s why”.
Confronting the post-truth world in an education setting will be one of the great challenges in coming years and I’m optimistic that it will be met. As our online world continues to influence our real one, a balance will need to be struck between consuming information, and how we effectively use that information to influence the real world and that has always been the goal of education, to prepare young people to change the world.