The current focus on fake news in the media is something I was reflecting on this morning as I did my grad school reading. It was in Fountas and Pinnell’s 2001 book Guiding Readers and Writers that I found the quote:
We cannot predict with certainty what today’s students in grades 3 through 6 will encounter in the twenty-first century, but we do know that their world will be driven by information and those who seek it. For these students, quality of life will depend on their ability to use a wide variety of texts — in both print and nonprint media.” (p. 390)
As I read this, I realized that in 2001 the authors had no idea that there would be a problem with students, and adults, being able to ascertain the reliability, validity and importance of a given text. It simply didn’t occur to even the best minds at the turn of the century that we were creating a group of people who believed that their belief was a sufficient justification for an argument.
Classical education, of course, spends much time in the study of rhetoric, the structuring of argument, and on history, which helps a reader understand the perspective of the author. Decades ago I began a practice of checking the copyright of books. I need to know what was happening in the world at the time a text was written. And I am aware of the relative quality of books. Wuthering Heights is no easy read, but the depth of its thought makes it still of value 180 years after it was written. As I read it, I think about the author: where in her psyche did she draw the character of Heathcliff from? Did Emily Bronte have a friend or acquaintance that he is based on? Or is he based on the Bronte’s father, Patrick? As I read Claire Harmon’s biography of her sister Charlotte, I consider the details Harmon gives to support various interpretations.
This is the type of discursive reading that classical education seeks to develop in students. We read the finest books, and then we break them down. Last week, as we were discussing Alice M. Hadfield’s King Arthur (1954) my students and I discussed the use of the ordeal, or joust, to determine the validity of a legal claim. “People in those days believed that a person who held a false belief would not be able to win a joust,” I explained. “The ordeal was actually an improvement over the method for extracting justice before it, which often was no more than a blood feud.”
“You mean like family feud?” asked a student.
“No, no no! The name family feud is a play on the concept of the blood feud. The original feud was where they killed a member of your family, than your family killed one of theirs, and it went on, sometimes for more than a generation … you can see why having a single joust to determine a matter of justice is preferable.”
The students nodded their heads. They could both see my point, and see the distance we had come since the Middle Ages.
This type of instruction, with texts drawn out of history, allows the student to see how writing is a truth claim that may or may not be completely valid. In our day, the blood feud, the duel, and the joust are antiquated. But in our history, they had their place. This understanding of history and how life has changed teaches students that we must continue to evaluate the methods we use to settle disputes and work to improve justice for all.
The skill of reading between the lines, of questioning of the text, is developed by reading excellent texts and dissecting them. This is something that the smartest students will do spontaneously. Derrida’s rhetoricity is something that is understood implicitly by the very sharpest students, but it needs to be painstakingly explained for the average ones. This is why the fake news phenomenon is so vexing for the intelligentsia: they are not taken in, but the everyday among us are, because they have not been taught to think rhetorically and discursively.
The foundational cause of fake news is technology, of course. But the modern educative impulse, which demands that every writer has an equally valid voice, has put us now in the company of a huge cohort of students who do not believe in the argument that some texts and ideas are better and more valid than others. The idea that Huck Finn is not necessarily better than Captain Underpants allows people who go to fake news or politically divisive or even violent websites to claim “that’s just your opinion” when their motives and beliefs are questioned, instead of taking a look at the arguments. The idea that if all texts are equal, all opinions are equal, is inescapable. This is why I say that the abandonment of certain classical education impulses, such as the study of rhetoric and history along with the awareness of the relative merit of texts, has made the fake news crisis worse.