Why we teach our students to read between the lies

Universities teach attention to evidence and fact-based reasoning, which 1930s Germany, 1990s Rwanda and now today’s US show us are vital, argues Donald E. Hall

January 19, 2017
James Fryer illustration (19 January 2017)
Source: James Fryer

As an unabashed lover of print texts and an avid lifelong reader of fiction, I have learned that storytelling can be terribly unreliable. Wise readers should never believe a first-person narrative in a novel or short story unless they find ample proof that the narrator can be trusted.

We in the US are living in an era of stunningly unreliable narration. “Fake news” sites fuel one unsubstantiated conspiracy theory after another, and vigilantes take up arms to redress imaginary crimes. Provocateurs from abroad and opportunists at home seem eager to sow political chaos, through manipulating fictions presented as facts.

Despotism and/or social mayhem are the likely outcome of a lie-based storytelling environment. See Germany in the 1930s or Rwanda in the 1990s for historical proof of that. About the latter, especially, I know all too much. I taught in Rwanda, at its national university, in the mid-1980s and left the country just as the economic situation began to spiral out of control. I heard from the numerous friends and colleagues I left behind how quickly fake news began to fuel civil distrust and allowed ambitious politicians to pit neighbours against one another. Gullible, under-educated citizens, eager for easy answers to complex problems, were led to believe that one ethnic group and all intellectuals were to blame for their problems. They slaughtered nearly 1 million of their countrymen and women in a few short weeks – including many of my former colleagues and their students.

In the US, we are currently at an especially dangerous point. We too are divided along racial, ethnic and economic lines, into camps of globalists and isolationists. Today, however, our “facts” and “fictions” are delivered at a historically unprecedented speed and quantity, through online media and social networks. Our national obsession with “reality television” has blurred the lines between fantasy and reality as never before. The potential for well-meaning citizens to be misled by unscrupulous social and political actors is at a historic high.

That is particularly true of young adults. I have taught and administered at a large commuter school in Los Angeles, at a land grant university in Appalachia and now at a private research university in the Northeast. Across 25 years, I have observed a constant: first-year students arrive on campus often not knowing how to evaluate source material, distinguish credible from problematic arguments and sort through the myriad data points and interpretations that confront them when reading through print material or scanning websites or social media updates.

The fact is that 18-year-olds often do not have the skill sets they need to make prudent, fact-based decisions. Too few of our over-worked secondary school teachers have time to devote to teaching those skills. And while people can certainly acquire these in a variety of other places, we specialise in this training in the domain of the liberal arts and sciences.

Clearly the requisite skills are foregrounded in courses devoted specifically to new media and social networking (as are offered now in my journalism and communications department). But they represent a set of life skills – civic skills – that are too important to be confined to such silos. And nor are they.

In studying 20th-century fiction, for instance, students come to learn why they should not believe the unvarnished narrations of Nick in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, or Holden in J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, or Eleanor in Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House. In writing a research paper about any of the above, students quickly discover that there are a few well-supported interpretations and many poorly argued ones, the latter often based on misreadings or mere emotional reaction.

The same attention to evidence and fact-based reasoning is taught in history, mathematics, science and sociology courses. Indeed, critical literacy skills are taught implicitly in any course that requires students to do research and then construct a well-supported argument evaluating and responsibly referencing outside source materials.

We who are long-standing proponents of the value of interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary studies also know that the intersections of academic fields are where one encounters multiple interpretive models that require one to sort out methodological appropriateness and determine the best course when presented with a variety of perspectives. Such skills have never been more important.

At a campaign rally in Nevada last February, our incoming president famously proclaimed: “I love the poorly educated.” But I do not love “poor education”, or its results. I believe in the power of education, certainly not to turn anyone into a liberal or conservative, but to empower smart decisions and the establishment of common social ground based on facts, rather than fears and lies.

While an education emphasising technical skills can have its uses, we must continue to assert without embarrassment or apology that we believe in the outcome of training in the liberal arts and sciences. Anything less is potentially catastrophic.

Donald E. Hall is Herbert and Ann Siegel dean of arts and sciences at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. This article is published in partnership with The Hechinger Report.

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Print headline: Danger and fiction: why we teach how to read between the lies

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