Monday, June 27, 2016

Teaching in a Post-Fact World

Stephen Colbert warned us when he coined the term "truthiness" for those things that feel satisfyingly true, but have no actual basis in fact.

And now we are swimming in it. From a Washington Post piece about brexit:

All of this has come about thanks to a world that is increasingly suspicious of experts. Please, can we choose another category of people to be suspicious of other than experts, which is just another word for “people who have spent their entire lives trying to learn more about complex subjects than the average person, so that they can give us informed advice”? How about “non-experts”? How about “people who know less than we do but assure us that things will probably be fine”?

In our own Presidential race, we have a candidate who lies repeatedly, without reservation, without restraint-- and without consequence. "I support Trump because he singlehandedly fought off the Antarctican Army when it attacked the Fortress of Solitude," someone will say, and even after you point out that virtually nothing in that sentence is actually true, they will simply not care. "Whatever. Trump really tells it like it is."  No, no he doesn't. But his lies don't matter because facts don't matter.

I'm not going to try to explain how or why we're here, living in a world where people believe they are, in fact, entitled to both their own opinions and their own facts. But as a teacher, I think about this a lot.

Never mind adapting teaching to new technology or new standards or stupid tests-- how do we teach in a world where facts don't matter?

Mind you, the US has always been fertile ground for bunk. I am just finishing up a book about the moon hoax. No, not the theory that we never landed on the moon in 1969. This moon hoax was in 1835, and involved a huge slice of the nation believing that the moon was inhabited by man-bats and bipedal beavers.* It was thick-sliced baloney, and was based on made up accounts supposedly from a noted astronomer-- simply contacting him would easily have debunked the story. But people ate it up.

But we seem to be in a deeper hole right now, a place where facts are absolutely irrelevant, or can simply be pulled up on the internet to suit whatever your inclination already is. Politics and media have helped get us here, with decades of a steady diet of fact-free panic-button pushing, so that much of the American public is primed for groundless distress. Trumpism is not a new thing-- it's just an out-of-control blown-up version of the old thing.

But, as I said--I don't want to talk about how we got here. I want to talk about what we, as teachers, do next.

The Challenge of Bias and Our Teacher Voice

As a student, I hated hated HATED when a teacher would use his bully pulpit to push his own point of view. The guy who taught "The Bible as Literature," a course you could only get an A in if you recognized the Bible as the infallible word of God. The guy who insisted that smart people must be conservatives. The woman who insisted that decent people must be liberals.

It was on my list of Things I Will Never Do In My Own Classroom-- I would never use my position to push a point of view. First, there's a power differential in every classroom, no matter how student-centered it is, and that means as the person with the power, I have a responsibility not to use it. Second, it's death to a writing classroom to establish an atmosphere where some expressions are more okay than others.

I have taught American literature for most of my career, so I've handled most of the hot-button topics, and I'm pretty good at "This is what the Puritans believed. Whether you agree with them or not is up to you-- I'm just here to make their point of view as clear and vivid as I can." For persuasive essays, I actively avoid any topic that I don't think I can set aside my own point of view for. Because there's no trap like the tap of thinking, "Well, any smart and clearthinking person could only come to this one conclusion." We've all had them-- the teacher who claims that there's no right answer and they just want to see evidence that you've constructed, supported, and presented your idea in a solid way, but when push comes to shove, there's really only One Right Conclusion that a top student should reach.

It's an unending balancing act, between support and conclusions, evidence and interpretation, freedom of expression and boundaries of decency. A balance between using my power for good and allowing my students to travel their own paths, no matter how twisty and messy they may be, all while trying to set a standard for intellectual rigor.

Tell the Truth

I believe that one of the answers to teaching in a Post-Fact World is harder than it first appears. Tell the truth seems obvious, but it breaks down into a couple of different questions.

The less-obvious question is "What are you really saying?" We have fallen into the habit of making "factual" statements that are really shorthand, and as shorthand, they are lies. For instance, the "every fifteen minutes" construction, as in "Every fifteen minutes another person punches a badger." This is a common way to break a statistic down into something more vivid and effective, but it's also a lie. Are people around the country getting up in the middle of the night, thinking "Well, 3:15 AM-- time for me to go punch a badger." No-- it means that when we divide the number of badger punchers into the number of hours in the year, it turns out there's a ratio of four punchers to every hour.

We do this all the time. We use verbal flourishes and figures of speech and statistical tricks to make sure that our voice raises up above the constant screaming background tumult of our culture. We use rhetorical tricks to sell everything from toasters to policy ideas. And all of this is part of a delightful soup that is one part Richness of Human Expression and one part Lies.

So it is useful to step back and ask what reality, what fact, lies behind the expression.

The other question is more obvious, though only recently have journalists actually been trying it out on Trump. That question is "What evidence do you have?"

We need to ask this question all the time. All. The. Time. And it leads us to other questions, questions about where that evidence came from, exactly, and how it was acquired and who put it together and how well they can be trusted to get it right.

And here's the hard part-- we have to do this even for evidence that proves things we believe are correct. "What evidence do you have?" cannot become code for, "Prove yourself, because I'm pretty sure you're full of it."

Question Assumptions

Every structure built of evidence and interpretations and arguments is built on a foundation of assumptions, and especially in a post-fact world, we need to question those assumptions constantly, if for no other reason than in questioning them we have to acknowledge what they are.

Recognize Facts As A Bias

Speaking of assumptions. Doesn't everybody base their decisions and understanding on facts? Well, no. And this is not a new thing. Even within the history of the Christian church in the US, we find a schism between folks who believe that understanding comes from revelation and folks who believe that it comes form study and reading.

I'm not saying that we as teachers need to abandon our believe in the importance of facts (at least, not those of us who actually have that belief), but we need to recognize that valuing facts is a bias (personally, I think it's an excellent bias, but still...) and that by emphasizing facts and evidence and reason in a classroom, we are operating against the values that some of our students' families hold.

To me, that means not approaching these issues with an attitude of, "Well, if you don't see the value of these facts, you're a dope." It means advocating for fact-based existence with respect for the audience (which is what we should be doing all the time anyway.)

The Critical Model

As I said above, this is an issue I struggle with, because my sense is that it his gotten worse in the last five years. I encounter, I believe, more students with extreme positions on issues-- and not only more extreme, nut more intransigent-- "I know that X is true because it is, and anything that says it isn't true is obviously false." And that seems to go hand in hand with an attitude that any person who believes differently must be either stupid or evil or both.

In other words, the same aggressively anti attitude that has infected us as a nation is there in my classroom, too. Surprise.

So while I still wrestle with the nuts and bolts of this, I know what is needed in the broad strokes-- if I want to live in a world where divergent opinions are argued with respect for the people who hold them and discussion moves forward between functional humans rather than simply trying to shout down and pummel into silence opponents who are, after all, simply stupid and ill-intentioned-- if that's the world I want to live in, that's the world I have to model, no matter what fact-impaired ugliness my students bring into my classroom.

And that is also my opinion and my bias, but I am comfortable standing up for it and trying to navigate by it.

* The book is The Sun and The Moon by Matthew Goodman and the story includes P. T. Barnum, Edgar Allan Poe, the rise of New York City, and the development of newspaper journalism.


  1. Try teaching science in a post-fact culture. Its like teaching reading and writing in a pre-literate world.

  2. Uncanny - this just came across my FB feed this morning: (Setting is Public, so should be viewable by anyone w/FB.)