What weighting should we give ‘Truth’?

31 Dec

Educational law requires that every school/academy promotes the spiritual, moral, social and cultural development of all pupils.  In the spiritual component, faith schools and academies will ensure that the children learn about their distinctive religions.  Non-denominational schools/academies will, teach the pupils about faiths generally and encourage tolerance of all religions and none.   Good institutions, through the cross-curriculum strategy, ensure that children have access to social and cultural development as they do with moral education.

However, there is one aspect of the moral strand that vexes many. That is about telling the truth.  From an early age, responsible parents and institutions encourage children to speak the truth, even if that means getting themselves into trouble.  That is as it should be, especially in an age when we have a surfeit of fake news spouted on the internet by social media and leaders of some countries.

At election time, as we have seen recently, politicians seeking people’s votes blast out whatever it takes to get them first past the post and into parliament.  At their best, they are economical with the truth – withholding information that could be unpalatable to the electorate.

In good schools/academies, teachers warn pupils about not believing all they read and everything they are told, to be wary of people who are attractive, articulate and offering them gifts, in short, to be critical of what they see and hear.   In 2018, the Commission on Fake News and the Teaching of Critical Literacy Skills run by the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Literacy and the National Literacy Trust, reported that only 2% of children and young people could judge correctly whether a news story was real or fake.  Over 50% of teachers did not feel that the national curriculum was developing the literacy skills of pupils critical enough to judge whether something was true or false.

According to Ann Mroz, Editor of The Times Educational Supplement, there is “lots of examination of prepositions but less of propositions; plenty of nouns but sadly not enough nous”.

When I grew up in India, my school encouraged debate and discussions.   Debates were organised in lessons. Sometimes year groups competed in front of the whole school, where pupils were asked to vote for those with the most persuasive arguments.  We were taught to challenge and delineate between fact and opinion.   This does not seem to be the case now and in this country.

Even when it comes to interpreting statistics, we should warn our pupils about the dangers of rushing in where angels fear to tread.   Mark Twain popularised the saying: “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics.”  He wrote in Chapters from My Autobiography published in the North American Review in 1907: “Figures beguile me, particularly when I have the arranging of them myself.”

We sorely need citizenship education, philosophy and the most derided of subjects, media studies. The US President, Trump, denounces fake news, in which, through Twitter, he promotes.  However, this has always been with us except we call it by a different name, i.e. propaganda.

Someone once said: “A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has got its boots on? Today’s truth hasn’t even managed to get out of bed.”

We ask our youngsters to make judgements based on hard data.  However, amassing all the data necessary to reach sensible conclusions on which we can make hard decisions can be one definition of the impossible.  We are often constrained because a certain amount of data, innocuously or on purpose, may be withheld from us or distorted.   It becomes ever so difficult to navigate through the forest of fibs, according to Mroz.

And even when citing the thoughts of those with integrity, we can be wrong because of the human condition of being limited and often mentally unsighted.   I am reminded of the poem written by John Godfrey Saxe, The Blind Men and the Elephant, where he describes six learned but unsighted men who went to “see” an elephant.

The first, who fell against his “broad and sturdy side” described the elephant as a wall.  The second felt its tusk and swore it was a spear.  The third happened “to take the squirming trunk within his hands” and ruled that it was a snake.  The fourth felt its leg and averred it was a tree. The fifth touched one of its two ears, and concluded it was a fan and the sixth caught its swinging tail and was certain it was a rope.  Each of them was right and all, wrong.

Given the nuances of English language, it is not very difficult to prove that “white” is “black”.

  • One synonym of “white” is “milky”.
  • One meaning of “milky” is “pale”.
  • One of “pale” is “dim”.
  • One of “dim” is “dark”.
  • One of “dark” is “black”.

And so, logically, we conclude that “white” is “black”.  Data is not all that it is cracked up to be and can mislead, if we are not careful in the interpretation.

So where does that leave us?  The All-Party Parliamentary Group on Literacy and the National Literacy Trust stated that 50% of the children they surveyed said that they were worried about not being able to spot fake news, and two-thirds of teachers said that they believed fake news was harming children’s wellbeing and increasing their anxiety levels.

Sometimes fake news comes in the form of social media accusations that undermine children’s mental health.  It is ugly.  We need to protect our young people not by excluding them from the materials but rather teaching them to recognise information for what it is.   If a criticism is untrue, it should not bother them.  If true, a child needs to do something about it to make things better.   Notwithstanding, our schools and academies could take steps to curtail fake criticisms and news, wherever possible.  Easier said than done.

It is a long journey to reach nirvana.   But as Confucius said: “Longest journey is accomplished when one decides to take first step.”   And what could be this first step? Surely, it is to recognise lies as lies.  We could begin doing so, if we have not already.  Life is complex and navigating one’s way through it difficult.  But it is well worth a try. After all, we are now in 2020 and just, maybe, we can develop that clarity (which is 20/20 vision) to see lies for what they are.  Happy New Year!

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