The evidence is in. Evidence and morality are out. Citizens can bring them back.
The new President of the United States does not just spin the truth in the service of winning adherents to his policy preferences. Along with his spokespersons, he has attacked the idea of evidence itself. In this new world, there are no facts per se, just assertions (aka alternative facts). To Trump, evidence is irrelevant because all his actions are instrumentally self-serving. Supporters know this but countenance his lies by looking the other way.
Trump is not an ideologue, but he has ideas and value that guide what he does. His worldview is that might makes right. He believes that financial success is evidence of innate ability. He is, therefore, untroubled by inequity or discrimination. His universe of moral responsibility is his family and the circle of people who remain slavishly loyal to him. His love affair with privatization and unfettered competition belie a comfort, if not affection for a dystopian, cutthroat, dog-eat-dog world in which he is top dog.
This is antithetical to what most Americans believe and want for their future. To fight back against this dystopian future, we need to re-harness the core values of truth, community, and social responsibility. Educators have a special responsibility because they can help shape the hearts and minds of future citizens.
Classroom instruction provides an opportunity to learn how to distinguish among truth, assertions and lies and that truth matters.
I know that most educators still teach their students to be able to distinguish fact from opinion. It is certainly at the core of reading, writing, science, engineering, mathematics, and all of the social sciences. Being able to tell the difference between reality and self-serving delusion is also essential to psychological wellbeing. However, the collective shrug of a significant number of Americans before and since the presidential election at Trump’s readily-apparent “pants-on-fire” lies and fledgling efforts to suppress access to information. This alarming development suggests that the lessons about truth have yet to be internalized by enough voters as core values. It is not sufficient to be able to identify assertions that are unsupported by observation and evidence. We need citizens who care about truth and demand of politicians and one another.
Educators have a job to do. Methods vary, but at the center of every discipline is the essential question, “How do you know that is true?” To protect democracy and the rights of all, respect for evidence and respect one another must be at the core of instruction in all classrooms.
For instance, history teachers can go well beyond teaching what happened. They can engage students to understand how varying perspectives and positions in society influence interpretation of historical events. To cite a current example, workers and owners may tell different stories about the demise of certain manufacturing industries in the United States. Whether or not students learn about how access to power influences which historical interpretations gain primacy will determine whether or not young people come to see themselves as passive or active citizens.
Similarly, science educators can go beyond teaching facts about the natural world. They can engage students to understand how biases and which questions are selected or cast aside for investigation influence observations and conclusions. In science classrooms, students can also learn when claims are supported by evidence and when scientific arguments fall short. In addition– certainly at the secondary and university levels– students should wrestle with ethics. Science and engineering, after all, have brought us the power of electricity and global warming, and nuclear bombs as well as life-saving medicines.
Educators need to help students learn about the human costs when citizens fail to demand the truth from powerful decision makers.
Teachers can also help students learn that establishing truth is a collective enterprise in which claims must be supported by sufficient evidence and stand up to challenges from others. For example, both scientists and social scientists establish the veracity of their interpretations through rigorous, public peer review by experts. Classrooms are the place to learn that challenges should not be dismissed by impugning the sex, race, nationality, or the academic and physical characteristics of critics. Students can learn that simply saying, “Believe me,” is unacceptable. Students can– no, must– learn to practice and respect these vital skills and intellectual disciplines.
The evidence is in. If we value evidence and morality teachers must teach it. Citizens must demand it.
Arthur H. Camins is a lifelong educator. Most recently, he was the director of the Center for Innovation in Engineering and Science Education at the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, N.J. He has taught and been an administrator in New York City, Massachusetts, and Louisville, Kentucky. The ideas expressed in this article are his alone.
His writings are collected at www.arthurcamins.com
Follow Arthur on Twitter: @arthurcamins