Perhaps no phrase summed up 2017 so much as presidential advisor Kellyanne Conway’s use of “alternative facts” a year ago in January, when she claimed that the new administration’s inaugural crowd was bigger than President Obama’s four years before.
“You’re saying it’s a falsehood,” she told Meet the Press moderator Chuck Todd, “and they’re giving — our press secretary, Sean Spicer, gave alternative facts to that,” she said. Todd rightly replied, “Alternative facts are not facts; they’re falsehoods.”
As a high school teacher, one of the constant battles I have to fight is that of facts vs falsehoods, and 2017 was a particularly big battle.
A school is like a microcosm of our society, and just like society, falsehoods creep in a variety of ways. Gossip, the Internet, so-called news shows and websites, and social media are just a few of the ways that students and staff have to fight off untruths that assail them on a daily basis.
Students are particularly vulnerable to “alternative facts” because they are often just starting to form opinions that they will carry with them the rest of their lives. Of course parents have the largest role in helping form a child’s world outlook, but school and teachers have a significant role too, and it is particularly important that teachers instruct children on how to think for themselves, on how to weigh information, how discern fact from lie.
There is no better medicine than a healthy dose of reading to ward off the disease of “alternative facts” that is so pervasive in our culture right now. And no, I am not talking about reading blogs or news sites that just reinforce your own opinion. I am talking about reading deeply from a variety of authors, some of whom you may agree with, but others who will challenge your preconceptions. I am talking about reading the news, sure, but I am also talking about reading novels, plays, nonfiction, poetry, science, history — everything.
Our current president isn’t helping on the reading front of the battle for facts. During the campaign when asked about reading, he said, “I never have. I’m always busy doing a lot. Now I’m more busy, I guess, than ever before.”
Then, when asked by Fox News commentator Tucker Carlson about his reading, the president said, “Well, you know, I love to read. Actually, I’m looking at a book, I’m reading a book, I’m trying to get started.” Hardly a ringing endorsement for reading.
When I assign a research paper or a speech, there is usually an audible groan in the classroom when I say, “You must have at least five quality sources to support your thesis.” Yes, finding facts requires some work. One of the most important jobs of teachers (and parents) is helping the children they are in charge of find facts that both support and refute their positions.
In our fledgling debate team at school, one of the most challenging debates is Lincoln-Douglass. In the Lincoln-Douglass debate, students have to debate both sides of an issue and are scored on how well they have researched and presented both the positive and negative side. This not only helps students in their thinking skills, but it helps them develop empathy for the other side as well. It would be beneficial if everyone approached issues like a Lincoln-Douglass debate.
It’s true that not every president is going to be like Thomas Jefferson, who said “I cannot live without books,” and whose library of more than 5,000 books formed the foundation for the Library of Congress, or like Barack Obama, whose insatiable reading habit allowed him “to slow down and get perspective” and “get in somebody else’s shoes.” Nor is it true that every student is going to be a lover of novels or of poetry.
But I am convinced that every student should be and can be a good and discerning reader. I believe that it should be every teacher’s (and indeed every parent’s) goal that the children in their lives develop the curiosity and reading ability to find out the facts for themselves, whether the issue be climate change, the Bill of Rights, the effects of social media, or whatever.
A lot has been said and written this past year about our country becoming a post-fact or post-truth society. No matter what side of the political spectrum you find yourself, the only way you can fight against this current trend is to stay informed, and the best way to stay informed is to read — and read authors that both agree and disagree with you.
Every year, two of the most common New Year’s resolutions are to go on a diet and exercise more. Well, I challenge you this year to go on a diet of reading, and to exercise your mind by reading widely and deep. Here on the west coast that will certainly mean reading The Daily Astorian and the Oregonian for local news. But try the likes of The New York Times and the Economist for global perspectives, magazines like National Review and The Atlantic for different political outlooks, authors like David Brooks and Ta-Nehisi Coates for their excellent writing and multicultural views, novelists like Margaret Atwood and Melissa Albert, and science authors like Richard Harris and Liza Mundy.
Our reading habits are the boot camp for the battle of alternative facts that our society is waging right now. The better prepared we are — and the better we prepare the young people in our charge — the better we and they will be for the real challenges that lie ahead in 2018.
Don Anderson teaches advanced placement literature, communications, psychology and graphic design at Jewell School, and is on the Cabinet for Public Affairs at the Oregon Education Association.