How do we learn what’s true?

Narrative fluency and the pedagogy of information

Narrative Fluency in K–12 Education

Can facts be protected from postmodernism?

Many schoolteachers want to restore the distinction between facts and narratives that has been lost under postmodernism. Through projects like the media-literacy movement and critical-thinking initiatives, K–12 educators hope to derive a consistent process for discerning fact from fiction. Their results, however, testify to the pervasiveness of the postmodern phenomenon by asserting that truth is not fixed, but an ideal to be pursued, an asymptote always just out of reach.

Media Literacy

When you scroll through your news feed or burrow into a YouTube rabbit hole, you do more than consume digital entertainment; you also supply valuable information to those platforms’ recommendation algorithms, which study your swipes and prepare the most addictive medley of ads and content to hold your attention. We’ve heard a lot about the intrinsic flaws of the attention marketplace—how the algorithms it produces tend to guide consumers toward clickbaity political extremes and away from good-faith debate. But unplugging students from social media is a nonviable solution, because social media is now an essential part of kids’ existence. Without it, they have few options for learning about school events, talking about personal issues with their friends, or keeping up with political debates.

Trailer for Social Me, a media-literacy app by Joe Sparano. Unlike the news-based pedagogy I discuss, Sparano’s curriculum focuses on how students brand themselves using social media. The message is the same, however: media comes with motives.

The goal of media literacy (sometimes called digital literacy or information literacy) is for students to keep their intellectual guard up as they navigate digital space. In one common media-literacy activity, students pull examples of media from their own social-networking sites. For each source, they make a table assessing the text’s tone, its intended audience, the source’s bias and conflicts of interests, and the credibility and variety of its citations. Then they deliver a trust-or-bust verdict. This process is meant to show that media comes with motives, that shouldn’t take every claim we encounter at face value.

In the exercise above, media literacy is a counteralgorithm, a series of dispassionate filters you apply to a given piece of media to determine whether the author is trying to pull the wool over your monitor. But sociotechnical researcher danah boyd points out that the media litmus tests taught in American schools are not as politically neutral as they may seem. Often, they lead students to prize a liberal epistemology of data-dumping and analytical phrasing over the gritty appeals to morality and tradition that dominate conservative media. These are issues of style and form, not content. And while it may be the case that magical thinking is more prevalent on the political right, current media-literacy pedagogy teaches students only to make this association—to feel distrustful when they recognize the shibboleths of conservative rhetoric. It doesn’t equip them to critique a source’s underlying argument.1

Media literacy markets itself as the solution to political disinformation, but like any algorithm with poorly chosen heuristics, it is hackable. Let’s say I adapt media-literacy pedagogy for my Korean students and teach them to doubt the exaggerated claims made by MOGEF’s opponents. I tell my students that trustworthy sources usually cite quantitative data and explain their interpretations through careful reasoning, whereas fraudsters tend to fly bright chyrons across the display and appeal to base emotions.

In 2040, the robot that writes Jun-ho’s morning news will know from its trove of biometric data that Jun-ho, due to subconscious reflexes honed in my media-literacy class and others like it, tends to trust news articles that feature dark grey text on a white background and ample bar graphs. Now, if the alt-right’s fringe candidate wants to win Jun-ho back, all his backers need to do is pay the robot company to stuff Jun-ho’s articles full of their graphs, favoring their political beliefs, and all written in the calm, reasonable tone Jun-ho associates with intelligence.2

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Taught well, media literacy will encompass more than superficial indices of political orientation. In addition to recognizing the warning signs of shoddy argument, students will know how to compare smart-sounding claims by applying universal principles of logic. They will learn, in other words, to think critically.

Critical Thinking

History from below: the Statue of Liberty as seen from Ellis Island. A. Strakey via Flickr

Here’s the argument for teaching critical thinking: You can teach students to identify biased media and purge it from their bibliographies, but you can’t delete the biased sources themselves. Unfortunately, bias is everywhere, and students must learn to face it with a cool head. They need to be able to argue against smart fascists as well as dumb ones.

In critical-thinking activities, students are sent in search of academic texts from across the political spectrum. They put these sources “in conversation” and attempt to weigh their claims on objective grounds. For a textbook example of critical-thinking pedagogy in action, consider the rise of Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States of America in progressively minded syllabi. Zinn argued that the accepted narrative of history tends to privilege the powerful and reinforce the dispossession of the masses. Thus, he wrote what he called history from below, amplifying the voices of those who suffer when others celebrate. However you feel about Zinn’s scholarship, there is much to admire about his moral resolution. A lifelong pacifist and advocate for civil rights, he believed civic consciousness could only come from appreciating history.

But how do you teach “appreciation”? I had a Zinn teacher when I took US history in high school. Each class, our teacher would place a chapter from the vanilla, state-sanctioned textbook alongside the corresponding narrative from Zinn. We students debated and wrote about how the “winners” and “losers” of the event in question told their respective stories. Our teacher noted that the winners tend to leverage historical narrative to justify their own choices. (The losers, for their part, can find solidarity in retelling forgotten stories.) In college, I would later recognize this as the fundamental theorem of historiography.

In the Zinn classroom, however, the lesson ends here, with the banal admission that narratives have narrators and there is no such thing as a neutral bystander. This is a restatement of the problem, not a solution. And as Sam Wineburg points out, while Zinnist historiography tracks with modern insights into the injustices of segregation and American imperialism, it suffers from the same stridence that characterizes state texts. “Such a history atrophies our tolerance for complexity,” he writes. Rather than gaining a feel for how historians work with primary sources and develop arguments, students in the Zinn classroom might come to see history as a contest of moral authorities. Think fast: will you cheer for David or Goliath?3

Not red or blue, but purple: the 2016 US presidential election results, each county shaded by outcome.Ali Zifan via Wikimedia Commons

Of course, most educators don’t set the two contrasting textbooks on the table and ask the students to make a binary choice. At this stage, someone usually brings up nuance: “It’s not red or blue, but purple.” By May, the consensus in my high-school US history class was that the state textbook wasn’t so much wrong as incomplete. If you spliced it together with Zinn, you could approximate the truth.

Once it graduates from cage fights between political tribes, critical-thinking epistemology arrives at a centrism: the correct model of history sits somewhere between the conventional and revisionist narratives. This is, inevitably, true. But just as media-literacy exercises mistake woke shibboleths for truth, critical-thinking pedagogy mistakes certainty for staying power. In the end, the narrative that gets fixed in students’ minds depends more on context and framing than objective truth. Imagine the history class that would result from using the state textbook as the orthodox history, and Newt and Callista Gingrich’s A Nation Like No Other: Why American Exceptionalism Matters as the corrective. (Cue podcast listeners, shrieking in the back about the Overton window.) This conditionality is the very essence of the postmodern phenomenon that critical thinking claims it can reverse.

Media-literacy and critical-thinking initiatives are generally targeted at K–12 education. In the next section we’ll turn to higher education, where the feedback loop between research and teaching has driven college pedagogy toward a different sense of intellectual integrity, one motivated by an anxiety about universities’ faltering institutional power.

  1. danah boyd, “You Think You Want Media Literacy … Do You?” Data & Society: Points, March 9, 2018.

  2. Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011), chap. 9 discusses cognitive biases and simplifying heuristics. These are psychological shortcuts that our mind uses when making decisions and evaluating information, and they help explain why people who ought to know better can have their judgment swayed by extraneous factors. For example, readers tend not to trust text that is blurry or pixelated.

  3. Sam Wineburg, “Howard Zinn’s Anti-Textbook,” Slate, Sept. 6, 2018.