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Truth and the Modern Classroom

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Findings from a recent Stanford study show that middle and high school students have great difficulty in effectively evaluating the reliability of online sources. The study revealed that most middle and high school students accept information online as presented without questioning or verifying it. Ignorance of facts is the enemy of liberation and is devastating to our democracy. How can our students realize their full potential if they are ignorant of the society in which they live? Should promising young minds pursue whims based on emotions or solutions based on reality?

I have been teaching American history at Excel (formerly South Boston) High School for 13 years. My primary goal is to teach students to be critical thinkers who contribute to and strengthen our society in the most inclusive and nurturing sense possible. Our students can only affect positive change given their ability to discern truth. Truth requires the support of objective facts. Strengthening the fabric of our society requires reliance on objective facts that inform truth. To be clear, truth is not a constant entity. We can look at the same objective facts and arrive at different conclusions. This is how freedom and democracy work best. Nevertheless, most important is the quality of one’s evidence – relevant, corroborated and verifiable evidence that leads to a truth based on facts and not simply emotion.

How do we recognize truth? In much of our political discourse, primary sources – original data and other sources based on one’s first-hand knowledge and direct experience – are not given the highest priority that they should. Apparently, too many are instead led by their gut and blindly follow political ideology, without evidence to support claims. Educators are increasingly challenged, especially after this election—where fake news and prejudice substituted for facts—in how to best help students discern and use evidence to support their arguments. I was recently interviewed for Henry Louis Gates’ documentary, Black America Since MLK: And Still I Rise, which uses facts and personal stories to de-bunk prejudice, racial bias, and the emotion behind it. As the documentary shows us, for example, the law ended segregation. But despite the law, and vast body of evidence pointing to the power of integration in schools, changing people’s hearts and minds was (and still is) the real challenge. By engaging with interpretations of historical facts found in this film and on PBS LearningMedia, students can make informed evaluations of our past and present course of action.

Fact and evidence must inform our morality. The desired role of critical thinking in a democracy should be to develop thoughtful opinions that lead to progress. Objective facts, not solely emotions or party ideology, must inform public opinion. Public opinions—and hearts and minds—are developed in classrooms across our nation. For too many educators, in pursuit of objectivity, equal credence is often given to ideas based on personal beliefs and emotions. As an example, overwhelming historical evidence supports that the Civil War was fought over slavery, yet modern-day Confederate Flag supporters assert the war was about the preservation of southern “heritage.” When we ignore or discount facts we do our students a great disservice by giving false arguments, such as this one, legitimacy.

When teaching history and current events, teachers should not directly influence their students to support or oppose specific political ideas or individuals. But at what point do we as educators draw the line to either support or condemn what is actual, fact-based reality? Should we ignore sexist, racist, and xenophobic language and actions—even from our politicians—because we’re afraid to express political opinions or influence? We must educate students to analyze evidence so that we can work to liberate ourselves from the forces of inequality that stew in our shared ignorance of racism, sexism, and xenophobia. This I know to be true.

Here are some great resources to support using evidence in your classroom:

Marcus Walker is a Boston Public Schools parent of two boys and BPS teacher.  He's in his 13th year teaching U.S. History and African American Music Studies at Excel High School in South Boston. He was recently featured in Henry Louis Gates' "Black America Since MLK: And Still I Rise." 

Marcus Walker

Marcus Walker U.S. History and African American Music Studies Teacher

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