Constricting the modern mind

I will be brief and rambling today.

As I was wasting a few minutes on “social media” I noticed post after post where a meme–often a very clever one–was offered as evidence for a political opinion. You know what I mean “X destroys opinion Y with one example” blah blah blah. I find it both irritating and a bit frightening.

I find it frightening because more and more it appears that memes are displacing newspapers and news broadcasts as the fundamental information for voters. I see memes blaming Prime Minister Justin Trudeau for Trans Canada Pipeline’s corporate decision not to further pursue the Energy East pipeline. I see local mayors tarred and feathered over I’m not sure what. I see that “the left” all agree on everything, and it’s all stupid. I see the “the right” all agree on everything, and that it’s all racist.

And I fear for the future of democracy.

One of the strongest responses could come from education. But I’m not sure that the will is there.

As I sadly looked at my Facebook page, a line from JS Mill’s On Liberty came to mind.

“He who knows only his own side of the case knows little of that. His reasons may be good, and no one may have been able to refute them. But if he is equally unable to refute the reasons on the opposite side, if he does not so much as know what they are, he has no ground for preferring either opinion… Nor is it enough that he should hear the opinions of adversaries from his own teachers, presented as they state them, and accompanied by what they offer as refutations. He must be able to hear them from persons who actually believe them…he must know them in their most plausible and persuasive form.”—John Stuart Mill, On Liberty (1859).

Mill knew better.

People who disagree with us are not all fools, nor are they all morally defective. (Some may be, of course.) For virtually any position worth fighting over, reasonable people can disagree on the details, and sometimes the fundamentals.

But do we take other people’s disagreements with us seriously enough?

What are the real issues behind athletes’ kneeling during the national anthem? They are not all fools; they are not all anarchists hell-bent on destroying a nation. You don’t have to agree with anyone to take him seriously. But you do have to have some intellectual and moral courage.

Can we teach students to take others seriously? I think we can. I don’t think we do it well enough. Classroom debates rarely get to the heart of the matter. Debates tend to quickly degenerate into glib contests of verbal cleverness.

Student writing (or oral, or visual representation, or film, or whatever) should always consider the strongest opposition to the point being argued. In fact, this should be one of the main points of assessment in the scoring rubric (that’s scoring guide, or rules, for non-teachers). Perhaps as much as 30-40% of the student’s grade should be contingent on whether she takes her opponents seriously and gives them fair and honest voice.

I’ll stop here. I’ve given this much thought over the years, but I’ve never tried to articulate it until now. Hopefully, you’ve noticed that I haven’t given fair voice to someone who disagrees with taking opposing views seriously. It’s a dilemma.


Dilbert on Amusing Ourselves to Death

Dilbert amusing


Like all good humour, the strip is a minor exaggeration of reality.




The strip serves as a segue from my concerns about the continuing relevance of Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death, to my next entry, which will look at Cathy O’Neil’s Weapons of Math Destruction.

As we move more deeply into the connected world, we have no choice but to surrender personal data. As we surrender data, market managers are able to tailor-make a world of consumption for us–whether we want it or not. The upshot is that the world of big data is relentlessly conservative–it makes a model of “you as you are” and works to market at you from that position only. The poor are set up for predatory loans and exploitative “opportunities”, while the affluent are guided toward status-enhancement.

Tighten your seatbelts; things are looking bleak.

Postman: “Teaching as an Amusing Activity”

As I noted previously, Postman’s 1985 book Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business seems oddly appropriate in the connected world of the early 21st century.
Chapter 10 of this book, “Teaching as an Amusing Activity” looks at the role of television in shaping 1980s educational thinking and practice. My goal today is to briefly review what Postman had to say, and think about today’s connected classrooms in light of this.
As I wrote in my previous discussion of Postman, TV and prose have very different structures, giving them very different relationships to knowledge. (Postman says that different media have different epistemologies; this, I think, goes too far.) Postman begins with a discussion of “Sesame Street”, then reflects back to the classroom.

As for educators, they generally approved of “Sesame Street,” too. Contrary to common opinion, they are apt to find new methods congenial, especially if they are told that education can be accomplished more efficiently by means of the new techniques. (That is why such ideas as “teacher-proof” textbooks, standardized tests, and, now, micro-computers have been welcomed into the classroom.) “Sesame Street” appeared to be an imaginative aid in solving the growing problem of teaching Americans how to read, while, at the same time, encouraging children to love school.
We now know that “Sesame Street” encourages children to love school only if school is like “Sesame Street.” Which is to say, we now know that “Sesame Street” undermines what the traditional idea of schooling represents. Whereas a classroom is a place of social interaction, the space in front of a television set [is not.] (p. 143)

There are two big ideas here. First, we have the displacement of responsibility from human teachers to an entertainment medium. Second, we have the displacement of a social setting—the classroom—to a private setting—in front of a screen. 30+ years later, the issues have not changed.
After some reflection, Postman continues:

This does not mean that “Sesame Street” is not educational. It is, in fact, nothing but educational—in the sense that every television show is educational. Just as reading a book—any kind of book —promotes a particular orientation toward learning, watching a television show does the same. “The Little House on the Prairie,” “Cheers” and “The Tonight Show” are as effective as “Sesame Street” in promoting what might be called the television style of learning. And this style of learning is, by its nature, hostile to what has been called book-learning or its handmaiden, school-learning. (p. 144)

Now we’re getting to the main issue: by changing the media of education, we change not only the content of education; we also change our notions of what is educationally valuable. Whatever it is that students get out of television learning, we have to be prepared to understand that it is different from what they get out of reading, writing and socially interacting. Watching the movie is not the same as reading the book. Not only do we need to understand it, we need to be prepared to challenge our values. What is important in education?
In the connected world, we often hear bland generalizations about the modern “knowledge economy” and “21st century skills” and “21st century literacies” and so on. But are we really aware of the price we are paying? Postman lays it out with what he calls the three commandments of television-based education.

Thou shalt have no prerequisites
Every television program must be a complete package in itself. No previous knowledge is to be required. There must not be even a hint that learning is hierarchical, that it is an edifice constructed on a foundation. The learner must be allowed to enter at any point without prejudice. This is why you shall never hear or see a television program begin with the caution that if the viewer has not seen the previous programs, this one will be meaningless. Television is a nongraded curriculum and excludes no viewer for any reason, at any time. In other words, in doing away with the idea of sequence and continuity in education, television undermines the idea that sequence and continuity have anything to do with thought itself.
Thou shalt induce no perplexity
In television teaching, perplexity is a superhighway to low ratings. A perplexed learner is a learner who will turn to another station. This means that there must be nothing that has to be remembered, studied, applied or, worst of all, endured. It is assumed that any information, story or idea can be made immediately accessible, since the contentment, not the growth, of the learner is paramount.
Thou shalt avoid exposition like the ten plagues visited upon Egypt
Of all the enemies of television-teaching, including continuity and perplexity, none is more formidable than exposition. Arguments, hypotheses, discussions, reasons, refutations or any of the traditional instruments of reasoned discourse turn television into radio or, worse, third-rate printed matter. Thus, television-teaching always takes the form of story-telling, conducted through dynamic images and supported by music. This is as characteristic of “Star Trek” as it is of “Cosmos,” of “Diff’rent Strokes” as of “Sesame Street,” of commercials as of “Nova.” Nothing will be taught on television that cannot be both visualized and placed in a theatrical context.
The name we may properly give to an education without prerequisites, perplexity and exposition is entertainment.

Whew! This is strong stuff. I can’t help but agree. And, again, the issues have not changed. Indeed, many educators have taken these three commandments to heart, merely by being part of the 21st century.

I hope to return to this later.

Back to the 80s #4: Amusing ourselves to Death

No. I’m not done with the 80s yet. Turns out that many of the issues that bedevil us today w71ew4kattblere on the agenda 30 years ago
I recently reread Neil Postman’s 1985 book Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business. There is an important chapter dealing with education, but I’ll put that aside for today and focus on the introduction to the book, which has become a deep insight into our currently connected world.

Postman famously reflected on two important works of political science fiction from the early part of the 20th Century: Orwell’s 1984 and Huxley’s Brave New World (and a tip of the hat to Brave New World Revisited).
Briefly, 1984 describes a totalitarian world in which people are controlled through censorship, surveillance and the systematic destruction of language. Ultimately, a people without the means for self-expression are incapable of creation and are doomed to servitude. Brave New World offers a contrasting picture of the future, in which those with the cognitive capacity for freedom are constantly deflected from its exercise, through drugs, sex, virtual reality and comfort.
Both books agree that freedom is threatened by the destruction of language and the motivation to apply it meaningfully; but each gives a radically different mechanism by which this might be accomplished. Postman’s great insight was precisely this point.

Orwell warns that we will be overcome by an externally imposed oppression. But in Huxley’s vision, no Big Brother is required to deprive people of their autonomy, maturity and history. As he saw it, people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think.
What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy. As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny “failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions.” In 1984, Orwell added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we fear will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we desire will ruin us.

This is chillingly appropriate for the connected world. We are offered websites, apps, music, video, games and more for the simple price of our privacy. And we are throwing ourselves with zeal into every imaginable distraction. Who hasn’t noted the trend of people walking down the street with their faces buried in their phones? What teacher has not noticed that students are drawn to the siren call of social media: even with the phone out of sight, there is the constant thought of “what am I missing?” Drivers are apparently unwilling to pocket their phones while on the road, preferring the risk of smashing a ton of steel into a stranger to the risk of missing out on snapchat.
But are we being controlled by all this? Postman thought so. (To be clear: he was speaking of television culture in the 1980s, but the phenomenon is similar. In fact, I believe that the phenomenon is the same, but is considerably amplified by the ubiquity of social media.) We’ve heard the talk about post-truth, and the connected world is the main driver behind our increased reliance upon quick decisions. Headlines matter more than articles, because we are not willing to put aside our distractions long enough to read.

post truth graph
Marvelous graph from social media. I don’t know who to credit. If you do, please let me know and I will do so.

I don’t believe that people don’t want to know the truth, or the details, or the arguments. It’s just that the pull of our amusements is stronger than our desire to know.
Postman would likely be pleased to see that his book and its arguments still apply more than 30 years after the book was first published. And he’d likely be horrified too.

Information, Knowledge and Wisdom

I try to write on a variety of topics, but I frequently return to questions of information and knowledge. (Wisdom is a whole other topic.)

We live in a world of information. Titles, fragments, snippets. Allegedly, we have entered a period of post-truth: a time when we get worked up over a headline, picture or soundbite, and can’t be bothered to go any further.

Yes. There is not much doubt of this.

And, if  you spend any time at all in the humanities, you’ll discover that someone smarter than you or I had this thought long ago.

from Choruses from The Rock
T.S. Eliot (1936)

The Eagle soars in the summit of Heaven,
The Hunter with his dogs pursues his circuit.

O perpetual revolution of configured stars,
O perpetual recurrence of determined seasons,

O world of spring and autumn, birth and dying
The endless cycle of idea and action,
Endless invention, endless experiment,
Brings knowledge of motion, but not of stillness;
Knowledge of speech, but not of silence;
Knowledge of words, and ignorance of the Word.
All our knowledge brings us nearer to our ignorance,
All our ignorance brings us nearer to death,
But nearness to death no nearer to GOD.
Where is the Life we have lost in living?
Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?
The cycles of Heaven in twenty centuries
Bring us farther from GOD and nearer to the Dust.

Take an hour today. Read something worthy of human intelligence. Information is over-rated. Honest.

You can read the rest of the poem here. Then go for a walk. Then consider rereading the Choruses.

Back to the 80s #3: Manufacturing Consent

Herman and Chomsky’s Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media is one of the most influential scholarly works of the 1980s. Certainly in the English language, it created enormous waves in every aspect of social science, and popular culture.

manufacturing-consent-the-political-economy-of-the-mass-media-0-300x300In brief, Herman and Chomsky create a “propaganda model” to explain coverage of certain issues in the largest American news media.

The case has two parts. Herman and Chomsky analyze “natural experiments” in the news world to see if American media give differential treatment to what appear to be politically and morally similar events. When they see that the treatment is, indeed, differential, they then apply their media model to explain the difference.

Two of the “natural experiments” or case studies stand out. In the decade or so preceding the publication of Manufacturing Consent, three Central American countries suffered from civil war, military rule, and American intervention. All three held elections that were scrutinized by external observers. Two of the states—El Salvador and Guatemala—enjoyed the support of the American government; the third—Nicaragua—did not. All three situations got extensive treatment, but Herman and Chomsky provide abundant evidence that they were not treated equally. The press was continually sympathetic to El Salvador and Guatemala, and continually antagonistic toward Nicaragua. There were other significant differences, and these were examined in the propaganda model.

quote-the-propaganda-system-allows-the-u-s-ieadership-to-commit-crimes-without-limit-and-with-edward-s-herman-77-16-03The second main case study involved the press’s treatment of the Indochina war (Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia) from the 1950s to the 1970s. Throughout the war, according to Herman and Chomsky, the press continually misrepresented the nature of local support, the nature of US involvement, the consequences of US attacks on civilians, and the suppression of popular vote in order to protect US-friendly candidates, regardless of their local standing. (The natural comparison to the Indonesian invasion of East Timor is mentioned, but not deeply explored in this book. Much was made of this in years to follow.)

I will not delve deeply into the book here, as I wish to take the main conclusions and play them forward into 2017, but I will at least outline the propaganda model.

Herman and Chomsky’s key idea is that a free press, operating in a market economy within a militarily powerful nations is subject to pressures that act as filters to the news. The model identifies five filters:

  1. Ownership
  2. Advertising
  3. Sourcing
  4. Flak, and
  5. Anti-Communism.

As mentioned previously, the model was presented in 1988, when anti-communism was a more powerful filter than it is today. That said, Herman and Chomsky, in a 2008 interview, note that it has been replaced with other convenient patriotic neuroses.

…The Propaganda Model’s ‘five filters’ requires some clarification. (a) Ownership and (b) advertising belong to straightforward institutional analysis – these are the kinds of institutional arrangements that predominate among US media firms and elsewhere. (c) Sourcing and (d) flak are two well-established processes to which any elite-serving media will adapt, whether we are talking about the elite US or British media or the elite media under Stalin and Hitler. On the other hand, (e) anti-communism, as a major theme of media production during the twentieth century, was reflective of the prevailing system of belief in the Western states, and has evolved with the collapse of the Soviet bloc since the first edition of Manufacturing Consent. In a crucial sense, and extending from the most minor comic books and cartoons all the way up to the highest academic discussions of the so-called Cold War (i.e. the system of propaganda known as the ‘Cold War’), anti-communism was a staple that provided content, narratives, heroes and villains. Since 1989, this staple has morphed into an array of substitutes. But the structural role that anti-communism and its successors have played, namely, the provision of an Enemy or the Face of Evil, remains as relevant as ever.


When asked how the model might be revised for the current situation, Herman and Chomsky replied:

It would look very much like the 1988 version, with the ‘free market’ as a principal ideological underpinning along with ‘anti-terrorism’ and the ‘war on terror’ that have provided the needed Enemy or Face of Evil, with anticommunism pushed into a back-up and reminder/ideological role.

So let’s move forward to 2017, and the current obsession with biased media, fake news and post-truth.

Let’s start with the obvious question: does the media have a left- or right- bias? And here we see precisely where the Herman and Chomsky model is almost speaking a different language from the popular discourse. Left and right are defined in popular discourse strictly in terms of local politics. In the USA, the Democrats are the left and the Republicans are the right. That might seem obvious to Americans, but to the rest of the world this is crazy: The Democrats are right and the Republicans are righter, by almost any standard. The discourse of “business first” and profitability for home-grown corporations are front and centre of political discourse—both in American and in much of the world. Since the heady Reagan-Thatcher days of the 80s, hardly anyone bothers to question this point of view. Certainly the mainstream media does not question this. The media is conservative in the same way that the mainstream political parties (at least in the USA) are conservative: they take for granted that the role of government is to ensure that existing power and economic structures be conserved.

The question of left/right bias in American media in 2017 is a thinly disguised question of favourable reviews of particular parties or candidates, not of left or right. Anecdotally, during the recent US Presidential election, the mainstream media certainly appeared to take more shots at Trump than Clinton, but at the same time, it gave Trump considerably more airtime. It’s hard to say which was more valuable to the parties and candidates.

But on a deeper level, this puts the whole fake news/post-truth debate in a different space than we have been seeing. Yes, there are propaganda sites out there, and yes, some media outlets show brand loyalty to political parties. This is also interesting, but not particularly deep or troubling. What is deep and troubling is the media’s bias towards certain views of the world. And this, if we can trust Herman and Chomsky’s analysis, is not new.

So let’s stop for a moment and catch our collective breath. Everybody thinks we should teach “media literacy” to our students so that they can navigate the wild world of fact/propaganda/lies/post-truth/alternative facts/doublethink, etc. etc. I’m ok with that, but let’s not rush into this. We have an enormous problem, made even more enormous by

  1. Our tacit acceptance of “the world as it is”, and
  2. The abyss we call the internet. As curated libraries shrink and are superseded by the uncurated online world, it is becoming increasingly difficult to distinguish mainstream media (with Herman and Chomsky’s reservations) from sincere and competent alternative media, from sincere and less competent alternative media, from partisan lies.

Let me close without resolution. Media literacy—whatever it turns out to be—will have to be a broad and deep endeavor for it to make any real difference for our students.


Alternative Facts

I post in utter amazement.


What in the world are “alternative facts”? Sometimes the facts are unclear. Sometimes the facts are in principle or in practice unknowable. But alternative facts?

As Chuck Todd noted, “alternative facts are not facts; they are untruths”.

No matter how many times gurus tell us that appearance is reality, it isn’t.

Is this what post-truth looks and sounds like? First claim: he gave facts. Second claim: he gave “alternative facts”. Third claim: nobody really knows the facts.

So far as I can see, all political thinking for years past has been vitiated in the same way. People can foresee the future only when it coincides with their own wishes, and the most grossly obvious facts can be ignored when they are unwelcome. . . To appreciate the danger of Fascism the Left would have had to admit its own shortcomings, which was too painful; so the whole phenomenon was ignored or misinterpreted, with disastrous results.

The most one can say is that people can be fairly good prophets when their wishes are realizable. But a truly objective approach is almost impossible, because in one form or another almost everyone is a nationalist… The most intelligent people seem capable of holding schizophrenic beliefs, or disregarding plain facts, of evading serious questions with debating-society repartees, or swallowing baseless rumours and of looking on indifferently while history is falsified. All these mental vices spring ultimately from the nationalistic habit of mind, which is itself, I suppose, the product of fear and of the ghastly emptiness of machine civilization….

I believe that it is possible to be more objective than most of us are, but that it involves a moral effort. One cannot get away from one’s own subjective feelings, but at least one can know what they are and make allowance for them.

–George Orwell, London Letter in: Partisan Review (Winter, 1945)