Critical Thinking, Dialogue, Higher Education

The Trouble with Truthiness

When Stephen Colbert coined the term “truthiness” in 2005, I had a good laugh. Indeed, it was at the high point of my laughing at the nightly parodies of the ridiculousness of the political world, seen on The Daily Show and The Colbert Report. Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert were adept at selecting clips from news briefings and news coverage to tell stories of hypocrisy, absurdity, and outright lies put forth by, well it seems like everyone, but particularly conservatives at the time.

Those evening news parodies were an interesting development. Comedy Central was taking on the mainstream and less mainstream media, when those traditional outlets seemed to have abdicated their responsibility to get at, well, the truth. Mainstream media had become all that Neil Postman described in his classic book, Amusing Ourselves to Death. Spurred on by the 24-hour news cycle and the profit-making imperative supported by the erosion of the Fairness Doctrine, regular news had devolved into soundbites with no analysis and lots of snappy hairdos. Stewart and Colbert filled a cultural void, calling out the media as much as the politicians they were skewering.

It was a deliciously sarcastic position and I laughed. But eventually, I stopped watching. As great as some of the follow-up programs have been with Trevor Noah, John Oliver, and even Colbert, slowly but surely my ability to laugh faded away. It just wasn’t funny anymore. My sense of humor seemed to be signaling to me the world that was to come–one devoid of any commitment to reason and facts at all. In other words, I left that wonderful world of parody before 2016. Apparently, I could see what was coming.

Now here we are at a shocking moment in US history and all I can think about is the notion of truthiness.

Truthiness is defined by Wikipedia as follows:

Truthiness is the belief or assertion that a particular statement is true based on the intuition or perceptions of some individual or individuals, without regard to evidencelogicintellectual examination, or facts.[1][2] Truthiness can range from ignorant assertions of falsehoods to deliberate duplicity or propaganda intended to sway opinions.”

Yes, I chose Wikipedia over Webster’s in deference to the original presentation on The Colbert Report, in which books were called elitist (I can still laugh at some things).

Now the joke was meant to name a practice that was (is) widespread, calling it out so we might guard against it, or at least notice it. (I take the liberty of claiming that intention, but I think I have read the strategies of irony correctly.) Unfortunately, what seems to have happened is a complete embrace of the “gut feelings” that Colbert cited in his announcement of this word in 2005, without any desire to consider the (f)actual arguments that might undermine those feelings.

The trouble is the joke only works if there is a commitment to the habits of logical reasoning. As any media ecologist can recite, while the roots of good argument are debated in Ancient Greece, the habits of logical reasoning for the masses emerged with mass literacy and mass education. Moving away from mass literacy and toward television and social media has undermined the very idea of logical arguments and makes seeking truth look silly. Indeed, truth is almost impossible to pursue in a world where there is no time allotted to evaluation. Instead, we focus on the new, the next, the statement devoid of context. As we replaced sustained arguments with decontextualized “conversations” that take place in brief videos, inflammatory Facebook posts, and impulsive tweets, we made truthiness the standard, not the joke.

We are in a pickle folks because truthiness is no way to run a democracy, fight a pandemic, or resolve injustice. Something’s got to give.

Now don’t get me wrong, we have always operated on the gut feelings that trigger truthiness. It is the starting place for most (all) opinions. We all live in a worldview that shapes those gut feelings, and they are not without biases. These worldviews shape everything from food preferences to ideas about international political structures and there is no sense in fighting those initial feelings. They are, indeed, our reality. No, I am not trying to suggest that our connection to our gut feelings is new, nor are they without value. However, I am suggesting that what happens next is what matters.

What happens next must be a commitment to the thorough investigation of those feelings. Those investigations must include a well-developed understanding of logic and contradictions. They must include at basic understanding of statistics and probabilities. It must have a foundation in how science works. It must engage the moral frameworks that are shaping how we see the world. And yes, it must include some clarity on how political systems work.

It should not surprise anyone that what I am calling for is a commitment to education that truly weaves together the arts and sciences that make up our understandings of the world. In the last week, there have been many voices in higher education who are reminding us of the value of the liberal arts, and the humanities in particular. I don’t disagree, but I want to be just a little more specific. We need to commit to direct instruction in logical reasoning.

In a world that is no longer situated in the assumptions of a literate culture and its habitual search for coherence, higher education must teach these skills directly. We cannot assume that our students are getting the structure of arguments through our investigations of texts or through their exposure to laboratory procedures. No, we need to lay the foundations of logical reasoning as deliberately as we once taught sentence diagramming.

Education must commit to exposing and wrestling with contradictions in every class. We need to dig into the limits and the strengths of making decisions on probabilities wherever those decisions are present. We must not shy away from engaging disagreements in moral codes, but rather hold them up as questions to be wrestled with. We need to fully commit, not just to offering a liberal arts education, but to seeing that our students are developing the habits of mind that such an education should foster.

There is nothing new here. It is a classical liberal arts education that I am describing. But the context has changed, and the urgency of the understandings we hope to foster is clear. So, I’m giving up truthiness as a joke. It isn’t funny anymore. It represents an abdication of responsibility for seeking actual truth. But it is a useful idea and it neatly describes all that has occurred in the last week.

So let’s not laugh about truthiness anymore. Instead, I am asking all of us to commit to using the idea of truthiness to start the important conversations about logic and belief that must be the point of education. I am also asking us to be accountable for the changes we must make to our curriculum to make it happen. We can do this, and we must. The future of our country is at stake.

Community, Resilience

A Ray of Hope

As I write this final blog of 2020 and prepare to take a few days of rest, I am thinking about opportunities for hope. It’s been a terrible year for everyone, of course. Worse for the neediest members of our communities than it was for me, I know. I am lucky to have employment and a home and to be in this continuous semi-isolation with my husband. We have lots to do, even as we mourn the loss of our normal social life, which is usually filled with music. Our family members are healthy, though we will miss our children on Christmas Day. No, the year was just not as terrible for me than for so many around me. I am grateful.

Nevertheless, I am in need of rest. I have carried a boatload of worry. I’ve worried about students and colleagues every day since the beginning of March, when I had to decide if we should bring our students home from their semesters abroad. The number of decisions that I have participated in making this year is truly stunning, and the consequences of each just a little overwhelming. From weighing levels of risk as we considered offering classes on campus, to establishing reasonable standards for going back online if infection rates surged, it was a sea of ambiguity. We did pretty well at WCSU, but the level of stress and worry was, well, a constant noise in my not very rested mind.

After safety came worries about the quality of the education we were providing. The complexity of a university-wide shift to hybrid and online teaching should not be underestimated. There is a reason why most people dip a toe into online with just one course at first: It is hard! Faculty have faced re-thinking their entire approach to teaching in a week, then a summer. They had to do it for everything, not just one experimental course. The support provided may have been strong, but the number of things to learn was more than anyone who has not taught online can imagine. No doubt, not everything went well.

Our students, too, were in an overwhelming environment. While people like to think of young adults as fully comfortable in online environments, in reality they are comfortable with games and social networks, not learning online. The normal transition from high school to college, where students learn to manage time in ways they were never responsible for in the past, was magnified ten-fold. As they adjusted to many asynchronous learning environments, I think many of our first year students just felt alone.

Despite all of these worries, we made it through the fall with relative success. Our infection rates remained low, we supported an expanded pass/fail option to help our students through this difficult transition, and faculty are getting more comfortable teaching online. We did our best to do some normal things in new ways. Faculty engagement with online meetings and events was high. Indeed, our Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching (CELT) ran weekly meetings to discuss all sorts of issues related to teaching online and there was a lot of engagement. Scholars in Action, our interdisciplinary panels featuring recent faculty scholarship, had their largest audiences ever. Our musical theatre program did a wonderful job creating online productions. Yes, we were fully engaged with creating a reasonable campus environment.

And now there is a glimmer of hope – vaccinations are approved and the first groups are already receiving them. It will seem agonizingly slow, as we wait for our turn, but this is an important moment. We are moving in the right direction. I am proud to say our nursing students and faculty have really stepped up. First, they were our contact tracers and now they are administering vaccines. Bravo to all of them.

I am proud of all that we have done together this year. The commitment of every member of the WCSU community has been tremendous. Amidst the fear and the ambiguity, everyone did their very best to support each other and keep working toward creating a positive and effective learning environment. We will do even better in the spring semester because we’ve had some time to practice. It is not ideal that we will still be mostly online, but there is nothing like that second chance at teaching or taking courses in new modalities for improvements. I’m confident we will all feel just a little happier and more satisfied with this disrupted environment in the spring.

So, on this shortest day of the year, I want to say that I can see the light ahead. We won’t be where we want in the spring semester, but we will be marching towards normalcy. And that march will be just a little less stressful because of the most important lessons we learned this fall. But the most important lesson we learned was that we are a caring and supportive community. It has been a joy to see those positive impulses shine this year. They were the true light in the darkness.

So, we should all get a little rest. We need it. But then, let’s return with a renewed spirit of optimism and community. That will sustain us throughout the spring.

Happy Solstice, Happy New Year, and Stay Healthy Everyone.


Let it Snow!

Something totally normal is about to happen, we are going to have our first winter snowstorm in the Connecticut. It is December, and despite the obvious impact of global climate change, it tends to snow this time of year. The weather forecasters are excitedly warning us of potential accumulation. Families are checking their shovels, salt, and food supplies, and we’re all looking forward to the joy of the first storm. It feels so good to feel this way.

Of course, this is not a normal year. Usually, when that first storm comes, I relax into the realization that nature will have its way with us. I revel in the notion that the foolish delusion that I am in charge of anything will be disrupted by impassable roads. The very idea that things will stop for the weather serves as a reminder that I am not in control. As I write this nostalgic reflection on my relationship with the snow, I am laughing. No reminders of nature’s power are necessary this year. Snow will not disrupt nearly as much as COVID-19 has already done.

We’ve gone and changed the snow storm rules, too. No more snow days in this predominantly online world. Unless the power goes out, most things can continue as usual. I suppose that is a good thing. Some years, snow has made it close to impossible to complete the goals of our curriculum. And for the K-12 group, they often extend the year in ways that disrupt family vacations and summer camp plans. Ok, it is probably a good thing to not let the snow disrupt everything. But maybe a little pause is in order?

As I reflect on my usual joyful feeling for all but those late March snowstorms, I am wondering how to reap the rewards of the modified snow day. Here’s my list.

  1. Let the sound of snow soothe you. Even if we are working from home snow storms bring quiet. I always know we’ve had a storm before I open my eyes, because of the change in the sound scape. That blanket of snow muffles the noises outside my window. When coupled with the reduction in traffic, it is a wonderfully quiet world. Something about that quiet helps me slow my pace, enjoy my morning coffee, and think more clearly. It just seems to say, don’t rush.
  2. Even if you are a person who hates winter, you have to admit that a fresh blanket of snow is beautiful. Take it in. I think looking out at the snow evokes the same feeling of awe that staring at the ocean conjures. Perhaps my brain knows that snow is water and so creates the same response. Well, beauty tends to bring joy, and we need some joy in our lives, so let it come through. Joy often makes room for ideas and insights, too, so taking that moment to see the beauty may inspire new productivity elsewhere. Maybe, or maybe the joy is enough.
  3. Go out and play. We are all tired of our homes. Many of us have done our best to take in the foliage, bicycle until the last possible day, or just take a walk to counteract the sense of monotony that our constrained movements can inspire. Snow is just one more opportunity to disrupt that potential despair. You don’t have to ski or shovel if you don’t want to (I admit it, I even like to shovel), but a few minutes of walking outside and breathing in the cold snowy air can inspire a feeling of health and wellness. Who doesn’t need that, right now?

Don’t worry, you can do all of this and still keep up with your work. It’s just a small pause, a shift in your pace, an opportunity for mindfulness that the change in the scenery can inspire. Take the time to let that work.

Here’s the thing, folks, we have a long way to go before normalcy returns, and we all need strategies to keep us from COVID-19 fatigue. Even with all the changes in our lives, anticipating the fun of a snow storm feels, well normal. So, let that anticipation excite you. Let the natural world inspire you. Let the positive disruption of a modified snow day create a feeling of hope that things will be better in the spring. And yes, let it snow!

Affordability, equity, Higher Education

Simplify FAFSA? How about no FAFSA.

This morning’s higher education news is filled with comments about the finances. Secretary of Education DeVos has extended the pause in student loan repayments for another month. This is in response to COVID-19 and the number of people in financial distress right now. Good. I just wish it would be for longer than a month because we all know it will take longer than a month for folks to get back on track with careers, rent, and general economic security.

Universities are considering various downsizing options in the face of strained finances or as a new strategic plan, but implementation of these plans is in question. Faltering enrollments are causing administrators to consider streamlining major offerings. Others appear to be reconsidering tenure track faculty, although the comments were later deemed “flippant” and insensitive.

Then, there is the drumbeat of inequity in access to higher education. This morning’s big contributions were a discussion of family debt on the College Scorecard. Some of the biggest family debt (parent plus loans), happens at HBCUs. Then there is the story on how our first generation students and students from historically underrepresented groups do not get enough information to know they can appeal financial aid decisions. And of course, Senator Lamar Alexander is still trying to simplify the FAFSA. Yes, please. It would be grand to get this done.

But here’s the thing, if you look over months of articles and data, it is clear that our access to education problem for families of lesser means, and yes that skews families of color, is persistent and pervasive. As a culture we get ourselves trapped in circular arguments. We believe in merit and equal opportunity, but we recognize that there are structural elements that are barriers to those opportunities. Then we try to right those wrongs with subsidized student loans, access programs, and admissions practices that attempt to improve the diversity of our student bodies. Then we get mad because those steps start to look like something other than merit, which makes us angry and we start to scale it back. That anger may be misplaced, of course, but that is the cycle of the arguments. The same people end up losing every time.

So simplifying the FAFSA is a noble goal, but it will not get us out of this cycle. As far as I can tell, those subsidized student loans are mostly helping the haves, not the have nots. They bridge the gap to elite colleges, perhaps, and would be nowhere near enough money for those colleges if the families did not have funds to contribute or the university did not supply lots of additional scholarships for those families who can’t contribute. Parent Plus loans make me shudder because those who need them tend not to be able to afford them. No, this system is not doing what we want it to do for access to education.

So, let’s really simplify. Make public higher education tuition and fees free. No FAFSA required, just free. Set a reasonable cost per student rate, that takes regional cost of living into account, and provide that funding to the state colleges and universities. Then fix the state and federal tax codes to make sure that all of us are paying our fair share to support that public higher education state by state. A progressive tax system will be based on earnings, so that takes care of the problem of people with degrees who work in lower paying careers (social work, education, and many other civic focused jobs come to mind). We don’t need different pay-back rates or loan forgiveness. Just tax appropriately. Graduates who move into higher paying careers will pay more, of course. Students who fail to graduate (an unfortunate scenario, but it will happen even when education is free), will not be saddled with debt they can’t repay and bad credit that keeps them from surviving. They will just limit their access to careers that pay higher wages (perhaps). Progressive tax structures still work for this.

Now some will jump to accountability questions and I do believe in those. The quality of education can still be evaluated, so can degree completion rates and how universities monitor this. Students can still be asked to leave college – free doesn’t mean forever. We can think through how we address graduate education, perhaps. None of these questions should be barriers to free education, because the equation is still simple. Education tends to lead to higher wages, higher wages should lead to higher tax contributions that should be directed back to education. The system should support itself. I understand the political complications, but the rest makes sense.

As for FAFSA, save that simplified form for the cost of housing, I suppose. That might be useful.

Critical Thinking, Higher Education

Back to Basics

As I listened to the news this morning, an old concern of mine re-emerged. From reports on vote tallies, to COVID-19 vaccine results, to the interpretation of census data and the potential impact on representation, I kept hearing statements that only partially captured the reasoning underneath. News reporting in every medium simplifies the story for the audiences involved, but that simplification leaves me worried about the conclusions people are drawing.

Today’s big news is about the results of Moderna’s vaccine trials. It is exciting to hear that, of the treatment group, @ 15,000 people, only 11 contracted COVID-19 and of those 11, none became severely ill. So, the short version is, this thing is 94% effective, and the next steps are for emergency approval. Yippee, I say. There is a light at the end of this semi-quarantined tunnel.

But here’s the thing, about 42% of Americans say they won’t take the vaccine, expressing a deep distrust of the science. Among those who distrust the results are groups of people who have historically been denied appropriate care or been deliberately abused by those testing treatments for various illnesses. Certainly, there is good reason for their skepticism. Memories are appropriately long, and trust is hard to regain. Nevertheless, I think the larger component of distrust stems from a lack of skill in evaluating evidence, probabilities, and arguments in general.

Consider the pre-COVID-19 world when we were discussing the growing opposition to vaccinations. For at least 20 years, we have been experiencing an erosion in trust of our vaccination protocols. While some argue from a freedom perspective, many more revert to arguments about safety. The feeling seems to be that since a very small percent of people who do get the vaccine either get the illness anyway or experience side-effects, then the vaccinations are unsafe. These exceptions, however small, seem to undermine the entirety of the vaccination argument for this group.

But what about the 95-98% effectiveness? Can we not build comfort in those probabilities? What about the fact that side effects are usually sore arms and low fevers? Can we not ease fears when the consequences appear so limited? What about the greater good created by herd immunity, protecting those who might be unable to take the vaccine due to other conditions? Can we not appeal to a sense of community to persuade? No, for the frightened parent, those assurances aren’t enough. That tiny, tiny chance of a bad outcome is enough to persuade them. The exceptions hold sway.

Ok, I understand. I raised children and I remember that deep breath I took when I held my child as the doctor administered vaccinations. For me, the fear still existed, but all those other things persuaded me to act. I also let my kids go to the playground, where thousands are injured each year. I let them ride in cars, where thousands are killed each year. I also lived by a lake knowing that accidental drownings are not uncommon. Perhaps, it was knowing that I play the probabilities all the time, helped me commit to vaccinations. Maybe.

Reflecting on this habit of focusing on the exceptions, I am once again driven to the conclusion that higher education needs to work a little harder at developing strong reasoning skills in our students. We need to help them understand that there are always uncertainties, but uncertainty should not lead to paralysis. Instead, it should help us make informed choices based on the best information we have at the time.

A lot of what we do in higher education is about opening our students’ minds to the complexities hidden in the stories they’ve learned all their lives. We dig into the challenging parts of our histories. We uncover the gaps in our exposure to voices from many cultures. We even reveal the non-linearity of scientific discovery, shaking faith in the certainty of that arena. It is a lot. It is a joy. It is necessary.

But those revelations are not enough. Indeed, they need to come second in the hierarchy of learning at college. To help our students see these big picture things, we should commit to some basic instruction in mapping arguments and evaluating evidence. We need to be intentional about developing the following basic skills:

  • Argument Mapping: Like the A, B, Cs, and the multiplication tables, we need to see argument mapping as a foundational skill that is introduced in the first year of college and revisited multiple times thereafter. Logic professors, rejoice. We need you to provide direct instruction in the form of arguments, the nature of fallacies, and the use and abuse of syllogisms.
  • Statistical Reasoning: Our students must develop a reasonable grasp of probability. So much evidence is based on probability, and written in statistical forms, that it would be neglectful to not make it a foundational skill for everyone. This, too, should be introduced early and woven throughout the curriculum thereafter.
  • Information Literacy: Finally, we need to help students understand how to weigh the credibility of a source. This is probably the hardest of all, but our librarians offer excellent, non-partisan ways to start. Yes, year one and repeated thereafter.

These skills must be part of all first year curriculum because they lay the foundation for everything else we do in college. They are also the tools necessary for all the important decisions our students will be faced with after graduation. They are, indeed, the capabilities necessary for life-long learning.

But most of all, we need to commit to these foundations because we don’t want students to take our word for things. We want them to have the right tools to make informed decisions for themselves. That, my friends, is what schools are for.