Wed 21 Jan 2009
John Locke in Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690) states that everything we know is from experience. He identifies two fountains of all knowledge – “the observation of external sensible objects”, and ” the internal operations of our minds perceived and reflected on by ourselves.” As a society, we extend the personal experience by reporting the fact of occurrences upon sensible objects such as news of events, scientific reporting, TV, Radio, The National Enquirer, gossip, blogging, etc. We also report the results of the internal operations of our minds, such as sermons, fiction, soap operas, symphonies, publications like Relativity, the Special and General Theory, and The Communist Manifesto.
Each of the sources of community experience comes with its own imprimatur and detractors. The New York Times reporting is considered very factual by many, but political conservatives consider it to be “just a liberal rag”. Those same folks believe that Fox News is “fair and balanced” while liberals decry it as “a conservative propaganda house”.
Educators have instructed their students to use “standard references” because internet sources like Wikipedia are not vetted by experts, and can contain information which is biased or conjectural. Using internet sources other than institutional ones, like cdc.gov, census.gov and redcross.org is verboten.
I believe that the orientation to “standard references” in K-12 education is fatally flawed. Much more important than factual accuracy in eighth grade reports is learning the skills to find and sift the truth in a information environment filled with spin and distortion.
These skills are even more important when the “standard references” often contain distortions and half truths. The Japanese people, for example, are just now coming to grips with the virtual slavery of the World War II Korean “comfort women” after a half century of official denial, the American official denial of human contribution to climate change, and Iranian denial of nuclear weapons aspirations.
An educated populace must be able to separate truth from propaganda, parse the half truths of innuendo, and recognize when substance is not debated and personal attack is substituted. The educational process must direct students to develop this critical skill in a free society, to fail at teaching this most important skill would be disastrous.
In the last knowledge paradigm the integrity of facts is established by an expert or panel. An encyclopedia is an example of a resource developed under the old knowledge paradigm. A problem with this plan is that “truth” is held by a small coterie. The viewpoint of any small group has the prejudice of the coterie, generally the group in power and influence.
Wikipedia follows the new paradigm of knowledge – distributed, unvetted and the knowledge of the mob. This paradigm, while not totally disenfranchising the old knowledge coterie, dramatically reduces its influence. The best of these knowledge venues, like Wikipedia, provide not only the “official view”, the alternative view and a discussion forum for users to decide the veracity of the situation for themselves.
People need to be equipped to operate in this new world of information where truth is mixed with half truths, opinions are passed off as facts, and everyone puts their own spin on reality. Skill at reading the truth from all the information “out there” is more important than reading Dick and Jane.
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