By Doug Ward
When it comes to seeing the truth, the facts sometimes get in the way.
Audrey Watters makes that argument in an intriguing blog post on the results of the presidential election. During the election, she said, a focus on facts (in the form of data) caused many people to overlook many voters’ willingness to shrug off Donald Trump’s inflammatory statements, conspiracy theories and falsehoods and put him in the White House. Something broader was stirring among the electorate that collections of facts failed to illuminate.
Academics, she argues, fall into that same trap. They drill down on the facts in narrow ways, often missing broader “truths” that take shape as people compile those facts into stories they tell themselves and others. She elaborates on that perspective further in an article about the wild claims of technology companies:
“Here’s my “take home” point: if you repeat this fantasy, these predictions often enough, if you repeat it in front of powerful investors, university administrators, politicians, journalists, then the fantasy becomes factualized.”
I bring that up here because as teachers, we must help students examine these facts, stories and “truths.”
Filippo Menczer of Indiana University explains the troubling consequences of that ignorance. Writing about the impact of fake news sites, he says: “Each piece of misinformation contributes to the shaping of our opinions. … If people can be conned into jeopardizing our children’s lives, as they do when they opt out of immunizations, why not our democracy?”
The columnist Leonard Pitts Jr. has long lamented the diminishing weight that facts play in American life, including a belief among some conservatives that facts themselves are biased. We used to agree on a basic set of facts, Pitts says, even if we disagreed on how to act on those facts. Now, people too often dismiss facts they don’t like and cling to “facts” that lack any basis in reality.
That certainly points to the importance of helping students improve their critical thinking. It also points to a need for teaching digital literacy, or the ability to work intelligently in the online world, separating the valid from the invalid, the informational from the promotional, the real from the fake. That’s especially important given a recent study that found that students from junior high to college pay little attention to where information comes from or whether it is valid. They simply consume, often blindly accepting what they find on Facebook, Twitter and other social media, especially if a friend passes something along.
We all have what Mahzarin Banaji and Anthony Greenwald describe as cognitive blind spots: disconnects between our self-perceptions and intentions, and the way we act toward people different from ourselves. That is, we may see ourselves as equally accepting of all types of people, but our internal biases often sway us in ways we don’t realize.
Banaji and Greenwald don’t examine politics in their research, but it’s easy to apply the idea of blind spots to political leanings and social class. One reason the American political divide keeps growing is that we gravitate toward people who support our own views. Highly educated academics and policy makers rarely have conversations with those in the working class who have grown disdainful and distrustful of institutions like universities, governments and the press.
Charles Camosy of Fordham University made an excellent point in a recent interview with The Chronicle of Higher Education, saying that academics live in such an echo chamber that they have trouble comprehending views that don’t mesh with their own. The divide between the working class and elite institutions “permeates everything,” he says. “It permeates how news organizations cover stories. It permeates how people think about fundamental questions.”
So what can we do?
The first step is to engage in conversation with our students. Many instructors and students have struggled to have reasoned, rational discussions about the election. Some have simply avoided the issue altogether. That was clear during recent CTE workshops where we worked through approaches to engaging students in difficult conversations. We simply must have those conversations in the coming weeks and months.
The second step is to do something that comes unnaturally for many academics: listen. Camosy put it this way:
“We just don’t do listening very well. We’re not paid to listen. We’re paid to give our views and to teach others about our views. And that’s not very good for dialogue. So we need to get better at intellectual humility.”
We do indeed.
The third step is to engage more meaningfully with people different from us. Academia has been making admirable steps in creating more inclusive environments for women, people of color, and people of diverse ethnic and religious backgrounds. It still has a blind spot, though, in the way it interacts (or doesn’t) with working-class Americans, people without college degrees, rural and small-town residents, and conservatives in general, the overlapping groups that voted for Trump.
Only by opening ourselves up to those conversations can we hope to comprehend broader truths from amid our fortress of facts.
The New York Times recently published an insightful series of stories that follow three students at Topeka High School as they contemplate going to college. If you haven’t seen it, it’s worth reading. … A conservative group has created a website called Professor Watchlist, which it says is intended to “expose and document college professors who discriminate against conservative students and advance leftist propaganda in the classroom.” … Mark Bonchek of Shift Thinking writes in the Harvard Business Review about the importance of “unlearning” in effecting change.
Doug Ward is the associate director of the Center for Teaching Excellence and an associate professor of journalism. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.