Living in the post-truth era

 


When I was an undergraduate English student I encountered the ivory-tower assumption that being educated had something to do with mankind’s search for what is good, beautiful and true. The corollary was that continuous reading of both current and historic literature was necessary to become truly educated. In other words, wisdom was the goal, familiarity with literature was method. Perhaps a bit conceitedly, practical purposes of schooling were considered less important.

This assumption formed the classical education as practiced by Europeans, and was infused and somewhat democratized into American ideas of education. Not much of this lofty thinking registered on this farm boy, but later when I started teaching I began to understand its outlines at least, as well as its importance. Almost unconsciously, we live driven by the prevailing ideas of our past as much as those of our own times. It’s good to know something about how that works.

But putting this together in my own mind was, and still remains, just one problem. Translating it to high-school students learning persuasive writing as a tool for civic participation was another. Nothing in college classes had taught the “how” of this. So I read some books, attended some seminars, and played with the problem until I had a home-made curriculum which I pursued particularly with seniors. I doubt much of it stuck, but that would be more my fault than theirs.

One of my borrowed methods was to present students with a familiar issue, have them choose sides on it, then assign them to prepare arguments for the other side -- not to change their minds but with the idea that you’re wiser in your own choice if you truly understand what the other side is thinking. And, it adds a bit of respect to do so. These were years before lefty political correctness and its righty backlashes. I’d probably catch heck from both sides for doing it nowadays.

Also, I emphasized the obvious need for reliable sources and evidence, like good journalism or writing legal briefs. The point was that in order to be persuasive, opinions need to be backed by facts, by truths.

That takes work. No one can do it for every possible issue, and that’s why I don’t trust politicians and commentators who have immediate opinions on every new issue. It’s the person’s character that makes believability, but learning that, too, takes time.

As it turns out, it’s immaterial whether I was going at this thing correctly. The last 30 years have demonstrated several things that made it a useless effort. First, so many pundits and politicians are no longer shamed or embarrassed when caught telling lies or blathering ignorance. Think Marjorie Taylor Greene. Second, the divided American public doesn’t seem to worry much about truth. What people want most is a gut-reaction, sucker-punching reinforcement of their existing biases. Third, the Internet is more a part of the problem than it is part of a solution.

None of that is news anymore, but now comes Artificial Intelligence – perfect-but-false images, voice and text generated by software rather than by traceable human sources, making even more difficult the search for facts, for truth, because now no source whatsoever can be trusted. No wonder we’re called the Post-Truth Era.

It’s a crying shame. We have endless resources in information-gathering and in understanding history’s uses in contemporary life, plus endless opportunities to contribute honestly to civic discourse. You’d think truth would be more accessible – and more critical -- than ever before, but it is nevertheless losing its force.

Can teachers deal with this paradox meaningfully? I don’t see how.

Ron Rude, Plains

 

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