I’ve spent the last week putting together some training resources on teaching students how to evaluate online resources for accuracy. A Stanford study recently reported that a large portion of the students they surveyed are not critical consumers of information found online. Many students have trouble discerning ads from actual content, do not research the credentials of the organization from which they are getting their information and use the order of Google search results as a proxy for trustworthiness. (see the actual prompts in the study’s executive summary) I was alarmed by the results of this study and what it means for our democracy. With increasing numbers of people getting “news” from their Facebook and Twitter feeds, it has never been more important to view all information with a critical eye. The people in our feeds are likely already biased toward our preferred viewpoints, so seeking out the opposing viewpoint and giving it careful consideration is an extremely important discipline to adopt.
I’m of course far from perfect in this area, but I know I had teachers that at least tried to train me well. First on this list in my memory is my junior-year American history teacher, Matthew Cadman. I’m not sure that I ever spoke in his class (I don’t really remember speaking at all in school. I’m making up for it by teaching students myself), but I did take in his lessons. First, he was likable. He loved music and loved history. He loved music that intersected with history. He was passionate, and that helped his students become passionate about history as well.
Specifically, I recall he taught us to “read against the grain.” He taught me to look for the bias in texts and not take everything I read as gospel. He taught me to look at the source of a piece of information and realize that the author’s priors and biases color their worldview, even when they are not aware. I learned to look at a text and decide whether to agree or disagree with the author based on an analysis of the evidence given.
Another memorable phrase we heard often was to “peel the onion.” Mr. Cadman encouraged us to look deeper at an issue than we had before, and to not stop there, but continue to look further and further down to identify all the varied perspectives and stakeholders. We learned that history is written by the victors. He memorably demonstrated to us how even first-hand accounts of events can be mistaken and even downright incorrect.
I’m grateful to Mr. Cadman for showing us that history can be fascinating. I’m thankful that he taught his students to examine information with a critical eye and dig deeper, seeking out multiple perspectives. He did his part to ensure that his students would contribute to a vibrant democracy through open-mindedness and careful consideration. Mr. Cadman, thank you.