Teach children to find truth

We were heartened to receive two messages from school leaders on Jan. 7, the day after our nation’s Capitol was stormed by an angry, mostly white mob, disrupting the congressional count of electoral votes. President Donald Trump had urged on his supporters in a speech rife with lies he has told and retold about the election he lost in November to Joe Biden.

One message, from the Board of Regents, which governs education in New York State, asked what the assault on democracy meant to our children. “How will they come to understand what happened? How will they process the images of a Confederate flag — that hateful reminder of another failed insurrection — being paraded through the halls of the Capitol? How will they be able to handle the emotional toll of yesterday’s violence and treachery on top of everything else they are trying to cope with in a year like no other?”

The Regents provided an answer: “Our schools can help. Teachers and counselors are there to remind our students they are loved and cared for, and there are resources available to help them deal with the pain they may be experiencing. Teachers are also there to explain to their students that we are so much better than this as a nation ….”

In a similar vein, the superintendent of our Guilderland schools, Marie Wiles, wrote an email to the school community. “At school,” she wrote, “we teach about our nation’s democratic processes and encourage students to be informed and good citizens. Yesterday, those processes were violated by our own citizens and it’s hard not to ask the question, ‘How could this happen?’”

Wiles linked families to documents — from the American Academy of Pediatrics and the National Association of School Psychologists — to help them talk to their children about the current crisis.

As we have seen throughout this pandemic, schools have been an anchor for our community, providing physical nourishment with free lunches and intellectual and emotional nourishment as well — a safe haven and a sense of normalcy in troubled times.

We call on the Regents, though, to go further and return to a requirement for teaching civics in schools. Every student should be required to do what we fear many adults have not: Read the United States Constitution.

It clearly delineates the three branches of government. Our judicial system, all the way up to the United States Supreme Court, rebuffed the false claims that the 2020 presidential election was “stolen.” 

A simple truth: There was no widespread election fraud. Biden won decisively with a wide margin of electoral votes and by more than 7 million popular votes.

The legislative branch of government was tasked with formalizing the electoral college votes on Jan. 6 when the mob — many of them believing they were defending the Constitution— interrupted that process for finalizing the transition to the new leader of the executive branch.

How did we get here?

We believe it came from our willingness, as a society, to tolerate lies. Through the lens of our small weekly newspaper, we could see the tolerance for disinformation growing over the last few years.

For decades, we had told letter writers a thought popularized by the late New York senator, Daniel Patrick Moynihan: Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts. 

Before Trump became president, most letter writers were grateful if we pointed out an error in fact and worked with them to correct it before the letter was published.

We received a letter soon after Trump was elected, saying he would be the greatest president — as that was an opinion, the writer was entitled to it — but also saying he had the largest crowd at his inauguration of any president. Aerial photographs from reputable sources clearly showed the crowd at Trump’s inauguration was significantly smaller than that of his predecessor.

But, the letter writer insisted, the president said so. We did not print that letter because, while we strive to allow a wide range of views on our opinion pages, those opinions must be based on true facts.

And so it began. The Washington Post has tracked well over 20,000 false or misleading claims made by Trump since he took office.

We didn’t want to be part of the problem, printing those false claims as truth. Our readers may have noticed many more editor’s notes on letters over the last four years, setting facts straight.

It came to the point where people did not believe what was right in front of them. We covered a peaceful, home-grown Black Lives Matter event in Berne last summer.

While over 100 people sat quietly in the town park pavilion listening to speakers share their views, two dozen counter-protesters on the edge of the parking lot stood near their 13 motorcycles and a pick-up truck, painted in camouflage and displaying three flags: a Trump 2020 banner, an American flag, and a blue-line flag honoring police.

“I’m here to make sure nothing gets desecrated in our town,” one of the counter protesters told us. Why would he think that?

“Don’t you watch the news?” he asked. He pointed to the park’s wooden war memorial and said he was there to defend it.

The memorial, a reproduction of a World War II honor roll, built as an Eagle Scout project, has been in disrepair for years. No one was near it.

Soon after the rally, the Facebook page “The Happenings in the town of Berne, NY” posted a picture of the counter-protesters and wrote, “There was a concern that the BLM-Antifa rally at the Berne Town Park might go loot the Veterans Memorial and more. A few residents checked in to make sure all was safe and sound.”

There was no looting — and nothing to loot from the memorial — on that sunny day in August. Rather, the Berne grandmother of a concerned teen had set up a forum in which a Berne-Knox-Westerlo teacher talked about his awakening, a BKW graduate spoke of what it was like to be the only Black student in her class, and a Hilltown pastor recited the preamble to the United States Constitution.

The idea of truth has dissolved as “alternative facts” and “post-truth era” have become common phrases. A series of little lies, unchecked, can lead to masses of people believing in a big lie — that the 2020 election was stolen from Trump when, in fact, he was attempting to steal it.

Just as Adolf Hitler derided the Lügenpresse, the lying press, Trump, like Hitler, called journalists the enemy of the people and labeled us purveyors of “fake news.” On Jan. 6, one of the things Trump said to incite his followers was, “The media is the biggest problem we have, as far as I’m concerned.” Some in the mob that stormed the capitol then wrote “murder the media” on a door inside, smashed cameras, assaulted reporters, and tied a camera cord into a noose.

As each person puts together his or her own news feeds and nearly a quarter of Americans, according to a Pew Research Center survey, say they have shared made-up news, we need to read across platforms and rely on reputable sources to find the truth. Algorithms have driven people further into their own corners.

The news that someone watches can make him believe that a park war monument is in danger when, in reality, people have gathered quietly to listen and learn.

So where do schools come in?

The most essential thing to teach our children is how to differentiate facts from falsehoods, truth from propaganda.

Near the start of Trump’s presidency, we wrote about a  2016 Stanford survey, “Evaluating Information: The Cornerstone of Civic Online Reasoning,” that studied the ability of students to judge the credibility of information that “floods their smartphones, tablets, and computers.”

The researchers found “a stunning and dismaying consistency” and reported, “Overall, young people’s ability to reason about the information on the Internet can be summed up in one word: bleak.”

Middle school students, for example, had trouble distinguishing between ads and news stories on the homepage of a news website. 

High school students were shown a picture from a photo-sharing website of malformed daisies along with the claim that the flowers have “nuclear birth defects” from Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster. Less than 20 percent questioned the source of the post or specified a need to know where the picture was taken.

The Stanford group correctly asserts, “Ordinary people once relied on publishers, editors, and subject matter experts to vet the information they consumed. But on the unregulated internet, all bets are off.”

The group goes on to quote philosopher Michael Lynch who observed that the internet is “both the world’s best fact-checker and the world’s best bias confirmer — often at the same time.”

Like the Stanford researchers, we worry that democracy is threatened by the ease at which disinformation about civic issues is allowed to spread and flourish.

Each of us needs to be careful about the news we consume and share. Teaching our children is a good place to start. If we want, as the Regents suggested, to tell our children — and ourselves — that our nation is better than what happened on Jan. 6 we have to educate ourselves to distinguish truth from lies.

Our democracy depends upon it.

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