Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Drawing A Line In the Sand: Critical Thinking vs. the Post Truth Age: Part I

In this 21st century, we all have been mystified by the current events of our age from the expansionist adventurism of Russia into the Ukraine to the recent presidential elections in the United States. These and other events have had serious impacts on the daily lives of many ordinary people. It has resulted in a variety of very common human responses. It should be noted that a majority of the responses have been of an emotional nature.
However, it is the intellectual responses that have been the most intriguing. One phrase that comes out of these intellectual responses and one declared to be the 2016 word or phrase of the year is the: "Post Truth Age".

By definition this phrase "the Post-Truth Age" means "relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief in the 21st century." So, the question that comes to mind is:

"What does this have to do with education and E-Learning?"

The Threat to the Integrity of Education

The main goal of education in a digital world is to teach learners how to think and even more importantly, how to analyze the vast amount of information on the web for its truth value. The reason that this is an important skill is the fact that access to the World Wide Web and the power of social media in the form of Twitter, Facebook, IM and other platforms means that anyone, both the ethical and the non-ethical groups who wish to present opinions have easy access. In education, the most important question is "what do you think about something?" instead of " what do you feel about something?". In order to teach learners to be able to answer and defend their answer to the former question, they need to develop good critical thinking skills.

In attempting to answer the second question without examining objective evidence means that everyone who feels something about some event is entitled to express their feeling and have it accepted as being "the truth" concerning that event. This also means that when that feeling is expressed, even when the factual evidence does not support the expressed emotional feeling about the event, the feeling about the event is to be accepted as the truth and attempts by others to challenge it on the basis of the factual evidence are to be silenced and censored. The use of badly defined labels with the intent of making the other side feel that they are "bad people" is a useful tool. It also confuses how the term should be used when verifiable, objective evidence supports it and it is legitimate.

This trend is dangerous on many levels. For one it allows the researcher in what ever field that he or she is in, to simply bypass peer review of their work and data and publish the results as accurate. If we have an Immunologist who follows this slipshod path, decisions that are made do not just impact the lives of university administration  and the individual researcher but can have far reaching consequences on the lives of many populations who are trusting in the authenticity of the results.

When "truth" is relative, it is no longer the truth. Critical thinking provides learners with the necessary tools to either accept or dismiss what is being said on the grounds of verifiable evidence.

With respect to education, the symptoms of this problem have become more and more prevalent in how educators deal with social issues. Too many educators involve students in taking stands on social issues without first having them examining the evidence from all sides; too many have their own confirmed point of view which skews how they present "available evidence" on both sides of an issue.

When we speak of the political level of life, although many politicians give "lip service" to the desire that all students be taught effective critical thinking skills, would they be willing to live with the consequences of having an electorate that is able to assess presented arguments by examining evidence and being able to separate fact from fiction in an objective manner. The comedian, George Carlin thinks that would be a nightmare for the political establishment because it might mean that they would have to meet a level of ethical standards that they have never seen before or even knew existed.

Before anyone comes up with a creative label suggesting that I am against emotional expression, I assure that I am not because it is an important part of who we are but it must be used in balance. An opinion is a valid one to examine if it is an informed opinion based on supporting and verifiable evidence.

If the teaching of critical thinking is important to properly equip learners, it is important so that they can be effective agents of change in societies beset with complex real world problems that need creative and innovative solutions and not just outbursts of emotional outrage. The importance of teaching critical thinking skills is heightened when it is conducted in an online environment where dealing with the exponential level of information is not just a nice frill but an absolute necessity.

As a society, we need to draw a line in the sand and not accept this purported "post truth age" as our new reality. We need to educate effectively and entrench the teaching of critical thinking across areas of curriculum. As Nelson Mandela states:

If you think that this type of conversation is worth sharing then do so. You know where I stand on the issue, I think!

Next----Drawing A Line In the Sand: Part II-Identifying the Enablers of the Post Truth Age

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