Dear America, It’s Your Own Fault You Can’t Read Anymore

“To the pure, all things are pure, not only meats and drinks, but all kinde of knowledge whether of good or evill; the knowledge cannot defile, nor consequently the books, if the will and conscience be not defil’d.” – John Milton, Areopagitica

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When I was in college, there was a clear hierarchy of majors, and mine was at the bottom. I’ve heard every stereotype imaginable about English majors, and almost none of them were good, except for “bookish” or “nerd, which I will totally own.

If an adult asked what you and another student were studying, you felt infinitely inferior when they said, “Biochemistry.”

Student: Biochemistry.

Adult: Oh, cool! What school do you plan to go to? What do you want to specialize in? Oh, Berkeley?

You: English literature.

Adult: Oh. You sure you’ll be able to make money with that? What, you’re not going to be a teacher? Yeah, that’s a hard road…

Welp, the joke’s on the adults now, because apparently some of y’all have forgotten how to read.

Fake News

So the new wave of terror sweeping across the land appears to be “fake news.” Obama’s said it, Hillary Clinton has said it, and Donald Trump has called almost everyone it. The New York Times has run profiles of the provocateurs behind the most radical “fake news” sites, left and right.

And this all comes at a time when President Trump has said he wants to abolish the National Endowment for the Arts, STEM fields are lauded, and humanities are laughed at.

This delegitimization of art and humanities is also at odds with the fact that it is governmentally-required core curriculum. Why do you think that is? Do you think math is necessary to be a well-rounded student, but not reading? This atmosphere indicates a culture that has lost its critical capacities, but feels free to punch down on those who actually learned them.

So here’s what I learned.

Sources

There are two basic reactions to sources. Either, “If you read X sources, then you’re a raving lunatic,” and “I won’t read or trust ANYTHING without proper sources.” The first seeks to delegitimize an opponent’s argument simply because you know what they read, and the second is the equivalent of a new driver making sure EVERY SINGLE THING is perfect before and during a drive.

Both miss the mark.

For all the emphasis that we put on sources, they don’t matter as much as you might think. The way that we process information from those sources does.

In Areopagitica, John Milton’s defense of unlicensed printing and against unfair censorship, he writes:

To the pure, all things are pure, not only meats and drinks, but all kinde of knowledge whether of good or evill; the knowledge cannot defile, nor consequently the books, if the will and conscience be not defil’d.

Milton is arguing that, given strong enough mental faculties, you can confront information without simply believing it. Learning things like this in school matters in a tangible way, and it means that some headlines simply do not make an impression on me.

Where they come from, the reputation of that website, even the type of website (lots of pop-ups), the writer’s past works – all factor into me making a decision about what type of information I’m reading, how credible it is, and how seriously I need to take it.

Note that I didn’t say that it tells me whether or not to read it. Developing these abilities ensures that you are capable of reading many sources and identifying what in them is true and what in them is false. This can be difficult, even for those with practice, and especially given that the aim of some of these organizations is to trick you.

But this also means your friends won’t laugh at you when you think The Onion or Andy Borowitz of The New Yorker is serious.

It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it. – Aristotle

I’m won’t so far as to say that sources do not matter, but I will say that in the end, what you read is not nearly as important as how you read. Learning what constitutes good and bad information will eventually lead you to certain sources over others, but if your will and conscience is not defiled, you can read a wide range of things to better inform your worldview.

And as author John Green notes, “If you have a worldview that can be undone by a book, let me submit to you that the book is not the problem.”

Bias

Another mistake apparently everyone is making right now is mistaking bias for “agenda” or worse, “fake news.” Here are some important facts about bias.

  1. Nobody has every written an unbiased piece. Ever.
  2. Bias does not mean that what is being conveyed is not true.
  3. Bias has to do with how you process information, not the information itself.

An example of that third point would be the story run in the New York Times about Donald Trump’s bone spurs that supposedly stopped him from being drafted into the Vietnam War.

Bias may be represented in the presentation of that particular collection of facts, the assumption that the absence of proper records denotes a lie on the part of Donald Trump, or assumption that he’s not telling the truth when he says he doesn’t remember which foot the injuries were in, and alternately says left, right, or both.

One could call these measures “biased”, but you certainly can’t jump the gun and call them fake, by any measure. They are not willful fabrications about something that didn’t happen or a gross mischaracterization of what did happen. “Fake” is what happens when you decide that your bias is more important than the truth, either through incompetence or laziness, and an “agenda” is when you do that on purpose.

Objectivity

The last thing that I see others clamoring for in this news atmosphere is objectivity. However, as the late and great journalist Gwen Ifill said, “I don’t believe in objectivity, I believe in fairness.” This is a point that gets lost in the rabble.

If the truth is slanted, reporting “objectively” is a lie. News organizations faced this issue during the campaign. Not wanting to be seen as “biased,” they deliberately pretended that Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump were anywhere near equal in scandal, in foundation, or in ability for the job.

Furthermore, the kind of objectivity people seem to be arguing for is an objectivity after knowledge, and that’s not how it works. You learn more and more facts until you have enough to make a valid conclusion and move forward.

So, no, B.O.B., the news isn’t “biased” when it says the earth is elliptical. They have amassed enough facts to confidently make that assertion.

Similarly, I don’t know how many times a person has to lie to you before you say, “That person is a pathological liar and it would be wise to take that into account while listening to what they’re saying.”

Let’s take the previous example of Donald Trump’s bone spurs. On the surface, maybe it seems acceptable. Then you learn:

  • Reporters are unable to find proper documentation for the injuries.
  • The condition Trump cites is likely to be extremely painful, rarely not. It seems unlikely that a person wouldn’t remember where it was.
  • During the time he supposedly had the condition, it did not prevent him from playing football or basketball, things that people with that condition typically can’t do.
  • Donald Trump has lied about a range of topics his entire life.

Conclusion? Lie vs. lie:

His foggy memory around the injuries and activity while he supposedly had them would be consistent with a story of them being less severe than average, but if it were less severe than average, that doesn’t explain why he was unfit for the draft.

The records and deferment would be consistent with a story of a condition more severe than average, but if it were more severe, it wouldn’t explain why he can’t remember it clearly or why that didn’t bar him from other vigorous activities, like sports.

This is a perfect example of objectivity at work. You compile the facts you have, you ask fair questions about them, and then you whittle down until you get to the most likely possibility(ies).

Conclusion

Nothing that I just said would jolt or surprise an English student. They spend years learning these critical abilities and learning how to sort, collate, compile, and process information to make themselves more informed citizens of the world.

So maybe, before making fun of people who study the humanities, you would do well to get one of them to read the newspaper to you, America, because it’s your fault you can’t read anymore.

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