In 1981, the village of Eckville, population about 700, became home to the most notorious incident in the history of Alberta education.
Susan Maddox, a relative newcomer to town, read over her son’s high school social studies notes with alarm. His notes were riddled with anti-Semitism, holocaust denial, fear of the “Jewish-controlled international banking system” and supposed threats to Christianity posed by the new world order.
Her son’s teacher, James Keegstra, was not only a veteran teacher, well-liked by staff and students, he was also Eckville’s mayor. Maddox’s complaint finally led to some investigation into Keegstra’s classroom practice. The Minister of Education removed Keegstra’s teaching certification (for failing to teach the approved curriculum, interestingly), and Keegstra became a test case for Canada’s hate speech laws, taking up court time into the 1990s.)
(I do not wish to give air to Keegstra’s views at this time. If you can get a hold of Robert Mason Lee’s article “Keegstra’s Children” from the May 1985 issue of Saturday Night magazine, you’ll get a fuller sense of what Keegstra taught, and what his students learned.)
My interest today is in one narrow but crucial part of Keegstra’s teaching: that the mainstream press cannot be trusted to tell the truth.
But it was far more insidious than that.
Suppose you found a book that said that the Holocaust were, indeed, an actual historical event. Keegstra had a ready-made reply: the book is fake news. Photographs: they can be faked easily. So the inquisitive mind asks the logical question: why would someone make this stuff up?
The answer, according to Keegstra (and his ilk) is simple: it’s part of a conspiracy to promote the Zionist Agenda.
You see, on this view, the texts that agree with Keegstra’s point of view are the work of honest, decent people working to bring the truth to light. The texts that disagree are the work of the conspiracy and its well-intentioned dupes. The more evidence you find to support the reality of the Holocaust or the falsity of the Conspiracy, the stronger becomes your belief that the forces of darkness are powerful. Once in, you’re in deep.
Once you buy into this conspiratorial worldview, there is no escape. All of your information is second-hand, and you have to decide who to trust. And there is no guidance for who to trust. You have two opposing views and no means of adjudication. Well, almost.
As a student, you have your teacher to trust. Who can blame the children of Eckville for trusting their teacher, a well-known Christian, and mayor of the town to boot?
Of course, this is why we have approved textbooks, controlled curricula and curated libraries for school. Right?
Ask yourself any question about anything that you are not an expert. Then turn to the internet for answers. Are humans causing global climate change? I don’t know about you, but I do not understand nearly enough about the science to have an informed opinion. I do know (thanks to my education) something about science in general, about scientific credibility, and about the simple strategy that if I have to trust, I should trust the most qualified person in the room. It’s not infallible (what is?) but it’s better than just trusting anybody.
But this is more than a bit unnerving. Think about recent accusations that the media are biased—about anything you care to consider. There is a trivial sense where this is true. Media tend to report on things that fit their business model and that fit their market research. They tend to trust authority figures, including government. And, I don’t like where this is going.
It’s not that we’re trapped in a relativistic spiral. It’s just that it feels like it.
And students are trapped even more deeply than adults are.
But you don’t have to look far to find adults—pre-internet adults, mind you—who believe the most outlandish things because they are online. During the recent US election, I thought that nobody would believe the silly fake news articles about the Clinton’s having all their enemies murdered and getting away with it. Nope. I was wrong. Once a slice of the media (and the politicians it favours) are able to cast doubt on all disagreeing parties, we’re in precisely the same spots as Keegstra’s children.
This, in my mind, is the most crucial issue facing modern education.
Everybody says we should teach “media literacy”.
Teachers think they’re teaching “media literacy”.
We are an increasingly media illiterate society.
I’ve got a couple more stops in the 80s before I can start to build my case for an appropriate response. See you in a couple of days.