Tuesday, January 21, 2020

A Teacher's Role In The Post-Truth Era

This piece from Sean Illing at Vox-- “Flood the zone with shit”: How misinformation overwhelmed our democracy-- captures the issue as well as anything I've seen in the past few years. Here are a couple of key bits:

We live in a media ecosystem that overwhelms people with information. Some of that information is accurate, some of it is bogus, and much of it is intentionally misleading. The result is a polity that has increasingly given up on finding out the truth.

How is that affecting the times?

We’re in an age of manufactured nihilism.

The issue for many people isn’t exactly a denial of truth as such. It’s more a growing weariness over the process of finding the truth at all. And that weariness leads more and more people to abandon the idea that the truth is knowable.

Illing suggests that this is deliberate, a strategy aided by technology and perfected by folks like Vladamir Putin.

In October, I spoke to Peter Pomerantsev, a Soviet-born reality TV producer turned academic who wrote a book about Putin’s propaganda strategy. The goal, he told me, wasn’t to sell an ideology or a vision of the future; instead, it was to convince people that “the truth is unknowable” and that the only sensible choice is “to follow a strong leader.”

And there it is.

We're used to the idea of propaganda aimed at getting us to believe something in particular, that it is designed for linear goals-- we will get people to believe that a balanced breakfast is the most important meal of the day, so that they'll buy more cereal. By convincing people that X is true, we can get them to do Y. Our idea of good, traditional propaganda is that it is focused and on message. Repeat your main talking point. Chip away. (After a couple of decades of hearing it repeated, everyone will believe that US schools are failing.)

But in the information age, the era of computerized super-communication, we have Propaganda 2.0. We don't need you to believe X; we just want you to believe that you can't believe anything. We don't need to substitute our "truth" for the actual truth; we just have to convince you that the truth is unknowable, possibly non-existent. You have no hope of navigating this world on your own. Just give all your obedience to a strong boss; take all your navigation from Beloved Leader.

Does he contradict himself? Well, it may seem that way, but the truth is complicated and unknowable, so why should the truth he peddles feel any different. Does his truth seem to be contradicted by actual reality? That's only because you can't trust your own perception of reality.

So what does that mean in the classroom?

Most classrooms are well behind this curve. Grappling with the information age has been about shifting the teaching of research; I retired with several great library units gathering dust because the internet changed research from hunting for three sources to sifting through 100. It has been units about "digital citizenship" and "how to spot a fake story," which students still suck at (my experience totally backs up this research).

These are all fine things, but they aren't nearly enough.

First, every teacher should know about epistemology, because teachers have to tackle the question of "how is it possible to know things, and what does that even mean?" This, as numerous pundits have noted, is what Trump and Putin and others like them have managed to smash-- the notion you can know anything at all if you are an ordinary person without a very yuge brain and all the best thoughts.

We have to teach young humans how to know things. We have to teach them that things can be known.

More than ever, the classroom can't operate as an authoritarian space.

"You can just take my word for it because I know things you don't" is, in a post-truth era. This is equally true if the authority of the teacher has been usurped and displaced. If, for instance, you teach in a school that has subordinated teacher judgment to The Standards and/or The Test, and you've been reduced to a conduit for the curricular choices of others, that's also problematic (in the context of this conversation-- it's problematic for many other reasons, too).

Propaganda 2.0 seeks to divide the world into two groups-- those who Know and those that don't. A classroom shouldn't feed that world view. It should make explicit that not only can things be known, but there are pathways to that knowledge. Propaganda 2.0 says that the two groups can't be bridged; if you don't know, you'll never know. Students must be taught that they can know, that they can grow in knowledge and wisdom, most of all that they can learn to learn, learn to teach themselves so that they will always be able to study and understand on their own.

As a teacher, that meant tracing steps to a conclusion. Maybe I had to check an authority, but I always went back to figure out the path myself, because my teaching became more and more explicitly "This is how I figured this out."

The Big Standardized Test serves Propaganda 2.0 far too well, with an implicit statement that for any question there is one correct answer and someone else knows it and you have to figure out what that unseen authority wants you to say.

We all have to become comfortable with uncertainty.

One of the biggest selling points of authoritarianism is that it claims to know exactly what the answer is, and that's comforting, because most of us are never quite sure that we're getting it right.

The solution is not to seek certainty, because that's a hard place to get to. The solution is to be comfortable with uncertainty. To accept that it is part of the human condition to usually be somewhere below 100% on certainty at any given moment. To recognize that that uncertainty is a thing that makes us vulnerable to bad actors and bullshit artists. To embrace that the slice of uncertainty is the impetus to keep us moving and growing, and that it helps make us fully human.

And then, somehow to transmit all of that to our students. I won't say it's not tricky; Step 1 in running a classroom is to be the grown-up, the experts, the person who knows what the hell she is doing. But living with that sliver of uncertainty means that we don't wait to be 100% certain to act or talk. Live in the amount of certainty you have without ever forgetting that you could have to change your mind. Humility helps.

In the classroom this also translates into a place where it's okay to be wrong, because that's just part of moving forward. In an authoritarian, truth-free world there is no journey-- you either know the right answer or you don't, and that's it. There's nowhere to go from there (mirrored in the way that the BS Tests don't allow students or teachers to ever revisit the questions and answers-- you either chose correctly or not, and there's nothing more to do or say).

Process matters.

It's not just where you get; it's how you get there. That has to be an explicit part of the lesson. It has to be party of the curriculum because it is part of the challenge of being in the world right now-- knowing how to evaluate the process by which someone reached their conclusion. That has to be part of how to evaluate a conclusion (not just "does this conclusion support or contradict my pre-existing biases?").

Some of this is practical nuts and bolts-- for the love of God, can we all just learn the difference between correlation and causation? Some of it just means having read enough to have ground on which to stand when you start probing and picking.

Yes, we sort of started down this path a while back. But.

The calls for critical thinking, the call for evidence, the idea that we should drop straight sage on the stage teaching (though a sage can still cover al of the above)-- we've long accepted the idea that classrooms need to do more than just spoon information and facts into student crania. But we are still behind the curve, and it gets harder because the people who breathe Post-Truth America have children and send them to school and before I retired I was already dealing with students who simply insisted that some bullshit was true because some Beloved Authority said so and who did not believe that trying to actually support an idea is even a thing.

NCLB, Common Core, the BS Tests-- they've all made matters worse and pushed us back in the wrong direction. You can say it's because there are forces interested in keeping folks dim and malleable, and that may be true, but I think the Post-Truth Beloved Leader mindset is set in many of them and they are simply trying to enforce their world view. At the top, however-- yes. You find the Putins of the world who are doing the ongoing work of undermining the very idea of things being knowable.

In the Post-Truth world, "education" means a whole other thing and "thinking" is a dirty word. You can try to sell it by noting that if something really is True, then examining it and probing it and questioning it can only make its true-ness more clear and strong. But for the acolytes of Post-Truth, this kind of intellectual inquiry is a trick, a sneaky way to lure students into leading themselves instead of falling in line behind Beloved Leader.

For most of my career, I thought of teaching as a subversive activity. In a Post-Truth world, that is even more a fact of the teaching life. They are flooding the zone with shit, and they are looking to deliberately undermine and remove anyone who is doing too good a job of cleaning up their corner of the world. Journalists and teachers are always at the top of the damned list. (Not that I trust Noble Crusaders-- those folks are too close to cut-rate Beloved Leaders.)

You're flying in a plane.

The instruments are busted or sabotaged or simply untrustworthy, so you have to use your eyes and ears and you can only rely on those up to a point. The only way to complete the trip successfully is to teach all of your passengers how to fly the plane themselves and hope to God that they don't give too much credence to that asshat in the back who insists that he should be put in charge because only he can land the plane, and anyone who questions him should be thrown out of the hatch.

There are times in history, times when I imagine that people, particularly people with responsibility, looked around and thought, "Shit, why couldn't I be alive in less interesting times. I don't want this. I don't want this now." But sometimes the times just call on you, whether you want them to or not, and I suspect these are those kinds of times. They are flooding the zone with shit.

1 comment:

  1. The first book I bought as a young teacher was Teaching as a Subversive Activity. Now 34 years later, I am still channeling Socrates in his exhortation to question authority. My main personal concern is that there is no one to whom to pass the torch when I retire.