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.

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.

Higher Education, Quality

The Vision Thing

I have been thinking about vision statements this morning. In the midst of this pandemic and the accompanying financial and enrollment impact, it is hard to move from crisis management to preparing for the future. It is hard to think long term while still addressing the daily trauma that makes up this COVID-19 world. But it is time to think long term. It is time to be less reactive and more visionary.

Vision statements for universities are a relatively new development and, honestly, I am not sure they are helpful. I mean, isn’t our vision to educate people? Public education, at its core, is a strategy to achieve the national vision of equal opportunity for all. It is a vision not yet achieved, but a vision of where we hope to be as a nation at some point in the future. We hope public education also gives us an informed citizenry but mostly we support it to create pathways to opportunity. Public higher education creates access for those who are not born to privilege (money) and who are regular people seeking opportunity (as opposed to those lucky few getting full scholarships to Harvard). It is a counterweight to our socially and financially segregated society.

While public higher education institutions vary – from Community Colleges to Research Universities– it seems like the vision should echo that commitment to opportunity. Now you might be thinking that perhaps I am mixing up mission with vision. Not really, but I am linking them together. Let me demonstrate. Here is our mission statement.

Western Connecticut State University changes lives by providing all students with a high quality education that fosters their growth as individuals, scholars, professionals, and leaders in a global society.

Following the guidance provided by this perfectly reasonable definition of a mission: “A statement of why the organization exists, at the most meaningful level. It is aspirational, in that it can never be fully achieved,” I think our mission hits the mark. We know who we serve, and the goal is never fully achieved because education that transforms is always evolving.

But who do we want to be? That is the vision piece.

Visions are supposed to help us set goals to work toward. They are meant to help us figure out how we want to change or grow or evolve over some next period of time (usually attached to a five year strategic plan). I have nothing against this desire to aspire to be better, but I do wonder about the focus of those visions.

I note that many vision statements use words like “best” or “first choice” or “school of choice” or “premier” or other externally focused, competitive language. When we move from describing our purposes to defining a vision, we tend to aspire to win something. Here’s ours:

Western Connecticut State University will be widely recognized as a premier public university with outstanding teachers and scholars who prepare students to contribute to the world in a meaningful way.

This is externally facing language. It does not extend or define our strategies for changing lives. It strives for some kind of ranking among our peers. It asks for attention and acknowledgement of our value. It is nice to be recognized, but it has no path to that recognition. Honestly, it is a market focused idea, not an educationally focused one. But it doesn’t have to be this way. What if our visions were internally focused instead?

This brings me back to our mission. Our purpose is to change the lives of all students through education. Doing so requires continuous reflection and a willingness to adjust our practices to better suit the needs of the students we are serving. There are so many actions to take to do this better. For example:

  • We can improve our pedagogies, our scheduling, our support systems, the structure of the learning experiences, and so on. Those improvements should be based on our experiences and outcomes and supported by good scholarship and data analysis.
  • We could pay attention to emerging trends in careers and research and adjust our offerings to support paths to and preparation for those opportunities.
  • We might want to re-think what should be a degree and what should be a refresher or a certificate and create opportunities for our graduates to re-tool or enhance their knowledge for their own growth.

And there is so much more because our mission is so ambitious. Changing the lives of all students is a big job.

As I grapple with moving forward instead of staying in crisis mode, the difference between externally and internally focused vision statements is on my mind. We are in a difficult situation. The population of New England is shrinking and the cost of education is too steep, even at a public university. We must have a vision of what we will look like in five years, just to be able to make decisions about how to sustain ourselves in this competitive and shaken environment. But I don’t really embrace the version that is about our place in the list of other universities. It seems superficial and subject to the whims of ranking systems that do not readily apply to a university that is designed to serve the many, instead of the chosen few.

I am looking internally instead. I am thinking about how to make good decisions that support changing the lives of all students. If I had to put it into a statement, which I am not sure is truly necessary, I guess it would be something like this:

WCSU will become an organization committed to the systematic and routine analysis of our programs and processes to ensure that all students have the chance to benefit from the educational opportunities we provide.

It isn’t a glamorous vision, but it does give me a clear path forward.

Critical Thinking, Engagement, Higher Education, Innovative Pedagogies

Productive Conversations

Eons ago (last Tuesday), before we learned that the President and First Lady had COVID-19, I was thinking a lot about the first presidential debate. As an educator, I’ve always encouraged my students to tune into these events as part of their obligation to be informed citizens. As a communication professor, I used to put these debates in context in terms of media employed and the stylistic elements that followed. I would provide them with excerpts from the Lincoln-Douglas debates, show clips from the Nixon and Kennedy debate, and remind them that hyperbole and mudslinging are in no way new. We would discuss the impact of the medium on these events, thinking through the biases of sound, image, and the differences between being in the room or watching from home. We also discussed rhetorical strategies and the key points of argument and persuasion. The students may have groaned at watching the debates, but they perked up in the discussion. It was fun.

Last week we saw what media ecologists might describe as the obvious “debate” style, when living in a world of instant, participatory communication, fueled by for-profit media structures. These media are antithetical to a true investigation of ideas and are devoid of a commitment to evidence. Television fully succumbed to shouting matches when we moved to 24-hour news cycles in the 80s. Time had to be filled, advertisers had to be bought with good ratings, and in the crowded world of cable TV, yelling was the winner. Indeed, through the 90s, I watched most of the shows with any kind of deliberation, become shouting matches or go off the air. Deliberation is lousy TV, after all, and not nearly “amusing” enough to survive. (1) Websites of all kinds then added immediate feedback to these shout-fests, and Facebook and Twitter helped us all promote our shouting to the world. We don’t just watch shouting, we shout along with the debaters, much in the way an audience at a pop concert no longer listens to the music but sings every song with the band. That’s not debate, that’s a chorus.

I am not going to go over what we saw on screen last Tuesday, smarter people have already done their best. What I am really thinking about is how to create some opportunities to foster productive conversations between regular people, off screen, and in non-monetized contexts. It seems to me that education is an important counterweight to all that cyber-yelling. (2) We absolutely cannot stop what is happening in all forms of electronic media. We can, however, model another way.

The good news is that education is the perfect context for this kind of modeling. We are all about argument (not yelling), evidence, and reflecting on different perspectives on a topic. Indeed, if we are not doing this, then we are not doing education. Whether we are talking about critiques of art and literature, arguments among philosophers and political theorists, or competing hypotheses about DNA, we are modeling arguments. As we sort through differences, sometimes the evidence is clear enough that we might even support a side/perspective/hypothesis (at least for now). But, not necessarily. Usually, we live with ambiguity.

But maybe it is time to be even more intentional about this, so that students really see that they are developing some good discussion skills, not just learning about a particular subject. In the past I have mentioned the idea of Debate Across the Curriculum (3) as an interesting educational strategy. Today, I am thinking about the civic learning initiatives from AAC&U. Drawing on A Crucible Moment: College and Democracy’s Future (4), they have spurred on several initiatives to try to promote teaching practices that foster engagement with democratic ideas. Well, it seems to me that productive conversations are at the heart of democratic ideas.

In a nice short summary chart called A Framework for Twenty-First-Century Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement two things really jump out at me (in 5).

  1. Understanding one’s sources of identity and their influence on civic values, assumptions, and responsibilities to a wider public. (Knowledge).
  2. Seeking, engaging, and being informed by multiple perspectives. (Skills).

Both of these are essential to supporting productive conversations. They ask us to think about our opinions/values, examine their sources, and reflect on how they shape our interactions with the world around us. This isn’t just argument for a right answer, it is a path to understanding. It is such a thoughtful phrasing, that does not seek to demean, but rather to examine. This seems like an excellent way to start showing our students that our goal is to prepare them for productive conversations, not yelling.

I think about the times I tried to discuss the semiotics with my students. Roland Barthes is engaging, but sometimes culturally distant from students in the United States (or in the 21st Century). To translate the ideas in Mythologies to my undergraduates, I often talked about hamburgers, yes, hamburgers. As a nearly life-long vegetarian, it is easy for me to access to symbolic value of hamburgers in the US. We usually had a lot of fun unpacking the ways in which refusing a hamburger can be, well, un-American. Then discussions of flags, national anthems, etc., would start to flow.

From this approach, and using myself as a foil, it seems like we could start to honestly discuss things like not standing for the national anthem or skipping the pledge of allegiance without hostility. It is not that we were all convinced of the validity of these moments of dissent, but we were all civil. We could better access understanding of that dissent by looking at our own values, their sources, and then thinking about those who disagree. On a particularly productive day we might even get to that most important of next steps –

3. Deliberation and bridge building across differences. (Skills)

This is the part that is so sorely lacking from our world right now. Our habits, like the media we use, tend toward taking sides and staying there. But important questions don’t have sides, they have nuances, deeply held convictions, counter-evidence and the need for reflection. I know I am not alone in yearning for more opportunities to build understanding with my students, friends, colleagues, and neighbors. So, let’s seize that desire and do something about it.

No, television, Facebook and Twitter “debates” are not going to improve. The media they occupy just do not support the details and the slow transformation that a depth of understanding requires. They are excellent places for slogans and barbs, but not for evaluating policy or supporting community engagement with important ideas.

But education, now that is the right place to be working on this kind of thinking. After all, we love slow. We live in an older kind of discourse that requires evidence, reflection, and fallibility. We absolutely have the time to go ahead and examine why we are disagreeing and potentially identify some paths forward.

So, let’s make modeling productive conversations a priority and let’s make sure our students recognize these as the core of what education does. In doing so we just might make the world a better place.

  1. Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death.
  2. Neil Postman, Teaching as a Conserving Activity
  3. Alfred Snider and Max Schnurer, Many Sides: Debate Across the Curriculum
  4. AAC&U, A Crucible Moment: College and Democracy’s Future
  5. Caryn McTighe Musil, Civic Prompts: Making Civic Learning Routine Across the Curriculum