Teaching in a Post-Truth Era

In an era in which truth is no longer the main currency of public reason, we must prepare our students to navigate and disrupt lies perpetuated by politicians and media outlets. 


Oxford Dictionaries’ word of the year is post-truth, which is defined as relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” Outlining the dangers of post-truth and fake news shared on Facebook, MTV writer Brian Phillips warns, "An America where we are all entitled to our own facts is a country where the only difference between cruelty and justice is branding."

Moral and political philosopher John Rawls reminds us that, in order for public reason to exist, we all must agree on some kind of reality, and public reason is primarily made in institutions, like schools. That is, we as a society must agree on common processes (for example, fair voting and election procedures) and substantive criteria (like moral and values-based considerations) from which to work toward a common good that everyone views as legitimate. In the aftermath of a successful post-truth campaign for the presidency, then, where does that leave schools, educators and the development of public reason?

As a teacher educator, I noticed post-truth systems of thought in my classroom of budding and seasoned teachers, but they felt peripheral. However, Trump’s victory stirred these teachers, unearthing prejudiced beliefs I’d heard throughout the campaign and codifying them as truths. The election results are changing how I see my role as an educator in ways I do not yet completely understand. I have always sought to create a transpartisan classroom that is oriented toward justice—that is, a space that welcomes various political positions in the interests of working collaboratively toward the greater good. And I felt confident that, if my students understood the facts and perspectives of marginalized people, they would reflect on their complicities in that marginalization (when applicable) and orient their practices toward justice. Yet, in the weeks following the election, I am not so sure.

As my students spoke about voting for Trump or not voting at all, I felt shaken, no longer sure of how to navigate the classroom space or our broader community with them. My efforts to cultivate a transpartisan space felt painful. Hearing their gut feelings and media-crafted myths as rebuttals to the argument that we should be inclusive of Muslim and queer students was shocking, their expressions of apathy troubling.

In her recent address to the 2016 meeting of the National Association of Multicultural Educators, educational scholar Linda Darling-Hammond reinforced the need to create transpartisan spaces in our classrooms. She noted that the “Trump Effect” may provide an opportunity to explicitly address the colorblind racism and domesticated homophobia, xenophobia and Islamophobia that has been lurking beneath the surface of our society for some time.

Yet, what does a transpartisan classroom look like in a post-truth society? How do you combat prejudice when, for many people, facts and counter-narratives don’t hold weight? Of course, we all hold prejudices that we have to address. But when beliefs consistently trump facts, what are the implications for schools and educators who are seeking to foster a just, compassionate and informed citizenry?

In my search for answers, I found hope in realizing that post-truth epistemologies can never negate truth and that transpartisan teaching does not mean all opinions should hold equal weight in the classroom. In a pluralist, democratic society, students must learn to engage in dialogue and dissent. It is my role to not just facilitate the sharing and critiquing of opinions and ideas, but to draw harder lines regarding what informed, supported opinions are and to remind students of the co-constructed common reality from which we are all operating.

In fear of seeming too biased or alienating the ideologies some students bring to the classroom, I’ve danced around this responsibility of drawing harder lines. Perhaps misinterpreting justice scholars like Kevin Kumashiro or Paulo Freire, who respectively advocate for the partiality of knowledge and the need for dialogic relations in matters of unraveling oppression, I found it difficult to say to students, “These are the realities of racism, sexism, classism, homophobia, xenophobia and Islamophobia, and this is what must be done to find a path forward together.”

As Freire cautions, “Leaders who do not act dialogically, but insist on imposing their decisions, do not organize the people—they manipulate them. They do not liberate, nor are they liberated: they oppress.” Heeding this warning, I refrained from drawing harder lines as an acknowledgement of the limits to my own understanding and out of fear of my justice orientation becoming a form of oppression for other ways of knowing and being. Yet, sobered by the hate that has erupted since the election, I realized my reticence to take a robust stance against prejudice was stifling the development of public reason by denying the common reality it demands. Students’ beliefs and the actions that manifest from them must be honored to the extent that they do not lead to the oppression of others.

I feel my pedagogy awakening. Prior to the election, I failed to help my students identify and animate what they can mutually consider reasonable. I now enter my classroom intent on cultivating a truth-based reality with my students through critical media literacy and historical analyses. Doing so will better prepare them to participate in a democracy that is both procedurally and substantively reasonable—and to do the same for their students.

Beck is a doctoral fellow in the University of Florida School of Teaching and Learning and a former first-grade teacher.

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