Friday, November 11, 2016

The truth is in the eye of the beholder

CC0 Public domain on Pixabay
This week's US presidential election has shaken me to the core. The most powerful man in the world represents the complete opposite of everything I believe in. Living proof that bullying, disrespect, willful ignorance and arrogance get you all the way to the top and to the applause of millions. Many questions are buzzing in my head and no answers. How do we work against bullying in schools when bullying is clearly a winning formula? How will education be affected by world leaders openly showing disdain for scientific research and expert knowledge? Why study hard when a completely inexperienced person can become president? So I started wondering how we got to this stage. Maybe one factor is our love of a good story.

We read a lot about storytelling today, especially in marketing. It's not enough to have a good product, you need to have a good story that people can relate to. Sell the company's history, in glowing terms with high nostalgia factor, and tell stories that create a warm fuzzy feeling for the company/product. Stories have always been central to human culture and they have seldom had a close relationship with the truth. Every country has a host of national stories about heroes and struggles in the past, often highly elaborated and embroidered, with each generation adding new details to the potent cocktail of myth, half-truths and a modicum of reality. Even if historians reveal factual inaccuracies these stories are almost impossible to kill because the desire to believe them is greater than the need for truth. Their function is to hold a nation together. The truth is simply too complex and messy.

The stories behind Trump, Brexit and so on strike a chord with many, providing simple answers to complex and messy issues. The opposition campaigns simply failed to find a more compelling story and assumed that their own cause was so clear that it hardly needed explaining. We take democracy for granted at our peril.

How does all this affect education (turning to the focus of this blog)? I'm extremely concerned that we have an American president who openly dismisses scientific research and expert knowledge as part of an establishment conspiracy (eg climate change). Top priority in education must be to focus on media literacy and source criticism, teaching students to check their sources and become better at assessing the credibility of the information they find. But what if you don't trust the "establishment" sources and prefer to believe alternative or extremist sources? If you want to argue an extremist view it's easy today to find a wealth of sources that support your argument. You can use the principles of source criticism but arrive at very different conclusions. What do we do if large sections of society see the education sector as part of the "establishment" conspiracy? The danger is that the truth is now in the eye of the beholder.

What now? We have comfortably assumed that everyone shares our vision of a democratic, tolerant, inclusive society that respects the rights of all citizens. It's now painfully clear that this vision is not default and that many see benefits in an authoritarian society. We need to work much harder at justifying our vision and challenging less democratic forces. We need to get our story right.

1 comment:

  1. Yes, hard work...and we need some time to let him & them make the mistakes. We need faith to believe that it will chance again to "our" direction.