If the Web Is an Unreliable Source of Political Information, Where Should Students Look?



Here’s an outlier of a higher education story:  College students can’t necessarily tell a reliable web site from a phony one.

Huh?   Kids today can take the internet apart and put it together.  Can’t they?    Says the lead author of a Stanford Graduate School of Education study:  Nope.

“Many people,” says Sam Wineburg, of the Stanford History Education Group, “assume that because young people are fluent in social media they are equally perceptive about what they find there.   Our work shows the opposite to be true.”   From middle school all the way up to college – that’s how far the disability spreads.  They don’t know what they’re looking at; they don’t know whether it’s true or false.   They “struggle to evaluate a tweet”—which might have proved a problem for them, you infer, during our tweet-happy presidential election.

The collegians who took part in the study discovered that the web yielded contradictory information and viewpoints on “politically charged topics.”   “A digitally literate student has the knowledge and skills to wade through mixed results to find reliable and accurate information.”   Or not.  In which case a lot of bad information gets out there in the public domain – to cause real-time hardships of unknown and unknowable dimensions.  The authors of the study see democracy itself threatened by disinformation about civic issues, some of it owing to “fake news,” other portions to plain old ignorance and incompetence on the news-consumer’s part.

Looks like an argument for better education in the evaluation of primary sources – if not for a major shift at colleges and universities when it comes to imparting actual knowledge; the kind of knowledge that comes from rigorous training of the intellect.

Socrates never—obviously—was asked to log on or provide his password, but he had a strong notion as to the centrality of reason and rationality in human affairs.   The ability to see with the mind was the skill on which he insisted.  As did his varied followers and successors: few of whom can have envisioned courses more intent on exposing the racism and paternalism of the West than in sharpening the tools by which wisdom and understanding are carved out.

An overhaul of the modern college curriculum seems more and more like an idea whose time has come:  less time for political frivolity, much, much more time for deep draughts from Aristotle and Milton and  Cicero, among other, supposedly irrelevant others.    Would someone like to put that in tweet form?   Maybe post it on Facebook?

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