My seniors are (or, rather, should be) engaged in a research project that will allow them to write an analysis paper on The Handmaid’s Tale. Their purpose is to link Atwood’s dystopian novel to current (or recent) events, whether here or in other countries, in meaningful and logical ways. Given what’s happening in politics lately, I thought it was a paper that could pretty much write itself. I don’t want it to write itself, though, so I’ve been spending some time with the kids going over how to do ethical research.
The problem when I was a kid was finding information – we needed to be taught where to look for the things we needed to know. The problem for my students (and my children) is finding good information – there is so much that is so readily available (and is so often ridiculously unreliable), that teaching kids how to sift through the sketchy stuff to find valid sources is a priority in my teaching about research.
I was thinking about this tonight when I got into it with a facebook friend about the factual validity of something that was posted on her wall. On the surface it was no big deal – it was a clearly partisan bit of sarcasm and anger and was clearly intended as such – but it sparked a conversation about the veracity of the information that we bounce around the internet.
One of the things that I need – not just want, but need – for my students to understand is how desperately vital it is that they learn to think critically about the things that get presented to them as fact. It seems to me that we’ve gotten to a point (or, perhaps it has always been thus and I’m just noticing it more) where it’s become accepted practice to pick and choose the details one wants from a given set of information so that one can prove whatever point one is trying to forward. It doesn’t matter that the whole of the set indicates something entirely contrary to what is being reported – as long as items A and B support a particular viewpoint, items C through Z can be conveniently downplayed (or outright ignored).
Facts can be very inconvenient things. They can challenge a previously held belief, they can force a reevaluation of a prejudice, and they can seriously hinder an argument. Facts can compel us to rethink the way we see ourselves and can rattle what we think of as foundational beliefs. That can be scary; so scary that a lot of people are just as happy to not do it at all.
It’s important to me that my students not be intimidated by the idea that the facts might force them to rethink the way they see the world – or the way they see themselves. It can be profoundly uncomfortable – threatening and existentially terrifying, even – to have one’s thesis (or world view) refuted by the facts, but my hope is that I can raise my students to understand that the mark of a strong and mature intellect is being able to adjust one’s thinking when the evidence indicates that an adjustment is necessary.