Truth and Democracy: An Existential Choice for Educators

Col. Francis Parker, a contemporary of John Dewey, said that the primary role of education was to instill in students the skills necessary for them to fulfill their roles as democratic citizens.  If the events of the last year have taught us anything it is that these skills, and how they are exercised, are being tested by a new threat: a current and future society where almost anyone can almost instantly communicate almost anything to almost everyone else in the world.  The role of education must evolve to meet this challenge, or potentially fail in our primary mission.

imagesThe full nature of “truth” is too large for me to ponder here, so I am going to reduce it to three categories in order to begin thinking of the role of education in this new world:

  • Opinion: Something I believe is true because it matches my other experiences, faith, or world view.  I may believe that it is “true” that abortion is a sin because of my faith, or alternately that every woman has a right to choose because I believe that individual secular human choices outweigh a specific religious belief. Each is equally valid to the owner, regardless of how objectionable to the “other”.
  • Weighted Truth: In a society based on rational thought and the role of law and precedent, and notwithstanding the possibility, no matter how small that we are wrong, the preponderance of evidence should count for more than opinion.  If 5,000 scientists from multiple disciplines say that global climate change is real and caused by human activity, and one or two disagree, the weight of the objective evidence must prove greater than mere opinion.  Were this not the case, our entire system of criminal justice would fail.
  • Factual Truth: Some things are provable.  Video and audio recording are real and we have ways to prove if they have been faked.  Hard data, acquired through objective means and disciplined research are real.  Evidence gathered from multiple sources with little or no self-interest in perpetuating false claims are real. If we cannot agree on this, we have no basis for civil discourse, which traditionally has been a differentiator between democracy and authoritarianism.

It is utterly critical, given the tenor of public discourse and the thorough breaching of these three categories in current social and political media, that education take an entirely new look at the subject of literacy and our students’ ability to discriminate amongst these three categories.  History is replete with examples of how distortions in the truth, amplified through the mechanics of ever-increasing technologies of mass communication, have proven able to crush democratic-leaning social institutions.  Propaganda is found across the political spectrum; it is not inherently liberal or conservative.  Regardless of our political leanings we simply must agree that propaganda is the fatal enemy of democracy, and education is one of the few weapons we have to defeat propaganda.  

Might we need to pull back on the time we spend in high school teaching Hemingway, the quadratic formula, the future imperfect tenses in Spanish, or medieval European history, or in elementary school building baking soda volcanos or learning to dribble a ball?  Might we have to make a choice to re-route some of that resource to a new set of essential skills, to educate our students about how to filter and discriminate amongst opinion, truth, and propaganda in modern media to which they are constantly exposed? I emphatically argue: hell yes.  That is not because those traditional elements of education have less value than they did yesterday; they still do.  It is because educators have never been just tasked with teaching children the content they need to function in society.  We are sometimes tasked with preserving society itself, and in this case, the democratic foundation upon which our society relies.

That foundation is now challenged.  Mass communication technologies allow absurdities to be broadcast as truth, seeking to influence those who lack the knowledge or skills to know the difference, or to reenforce thinking based on a previous foundation of questionable support.  The reach of propaganda, opinion, or outright lies masquerading as truth, is vastly greater, faster, and more impactful today than it was in the days of chief Nazi liar Joseph Goebbels or Soviet grandmaster Vladimir Lenin (the ultimate historical propagandists of the political right and the left).

We as educators have to make some choices, and it starts with a new discussion of what is most important for our students and how we will spend our time with them. I believe that giving our students the tools by which to perpetuate civil democracy,  like how to sort the relative weight of “truth”,  trumps all other responsibilities. Every educator and every school community should engage in this discussion, not over the specifics of each transgression splashed across the internet, but as an honest discussion of the degree to which “truth literacy” becomes a greater focus of learning across all grade levels. Despite standards, traditions, and inertia that hinder change in all schools, you do have choice. It may well be that future generations will look back to see who tucked in their heads when choices were hard, and who rallied around our most hallowed responsibilities.

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