It is incumbent on our educational systems to make an effort to help the young become more discerning.
During this interregnum between the administrations of the two American presidents, fake news has become the biggest and most consistent story in the media. The screenwriters of this unfolding drama have given Russia the starring role—particularly the Democrats, who offer it partly as an explanation of why they lost. But Facebook is also among the accused as the most prominent amplifying medium of fake news.
Pursuing the idea that Russia is the lead player in the global exploitation of fake news, The Washington Post achieved the summit of hyperreality when it published the ultimate fake news item: an article claiming as a fact that specific websites—most of them famously independent but critical of the establishment—are “routine peddlers of Russian propaganda.” It was a clear case of invented news purporting to expose sincere news outlets as purveyors of fake news. When innuendo becomes the basis of news, we know that we have gone beyond everyday reality.
But what do we really know? Confronted with a plethora of media sources, what is our notion of reality? What is it based on? What anchors it?
Recent events should help us to acknowledge that we are now living in an age of hyperreality, a concept first proposed by the late French sociologist and philosopher Jean Baudrillard. Hyperreality replaces reality in our minds and conditions our perception of the world. As political theorist Andrew Robinson comments in his definition of hyperreality: “It is as if, at a certain point of time, we left reality behind, and never noticed until now. We can no longer tell the former reality from hyperreality, and we wouldn’t know if reality returned.”
Last week at Online Educa Berlin, the prestigious conference on educational technology, I was a speaker in a session on the theme of disinformation, with a focus on the issue of fake news. We asked the question: What can education do about it? There were no simple answers but everyone on the panel and in the audience agreed that it was incumbent on our educational systems to make an effort to help the young become more discerning. In a public session of that kind we shouldn’t expect much more than an expression of good intentions.
I’d like to take this opportunity to push the debate a step further, with a more focused approach, one with potentially far-reaching implications. Because we need to understand the actual world we live in, I would now suggest that our schools and educators find a way of integrating Jean Baudrillard’s notion of hyperreality into the curriculum in order to teach a new generation to distinguish between the real and the simulacra produced by media, government and our official education programs.
A week before the US presidential election I offered a satirical take on Donald Trump’s imagined morning-after speech, at a point where he was on the brink of victory. In it the unambiguously hyperreal candidate confessed that, influenced by his reading of the man he called Pierre Baudrillard (aren’t all Frenchmen called Pierre?), his entire campaign had been designed as a demonstration that US culture had definitively become disastrously hyperreal.
Only by pushing hyperreality further through his own outlandish campaign could Americans begin to realize that the real the nation is faced with is “to make America real again.” The 18-month campaign of gratuitous racism, outrageous prevarication and sexual aggression was nothing more than Trump’s prolonged teaching moment to enlighten the nation.
Though intended as ridiculous satire, I’m not convinced today that I was wrong, at least concerning the effect, if not Trump’s intentions. Since his election, the buzz around fake news has turned into a roar, a as clear an indicator as anyone could wish that we are all confused about the distinction between reality and hyperreality.
Acknowledgement always precedes understanding. I’m hopeful that we can recognize Trump’s unwitting contribution to our future political and cultural enlightenment. At the same time, I’m fearful that the roar will drown the wisdom we should in better circumstances be able to draw from the drama. Which is why we really do need to find a way of navigating between reality on the one hand (how we live our lives) and hyperreality, or how the media, advertising and political discourse condition us to believe our lives are structured.
Among the ingredients of hyperreality are celebrity culture, sensationalism (always the best way to make a splash and an easy buck), the chutzpah to stand up in public and distort obvious truth without batting an eyelash, and the idea that monetary success is the sole objective behind every citizen’s “pursuit of happiness.” Trump himself as a person and through his ambition represents all these hyperreal trends, which is why his election is the superficial demonstration of a deeper perversion of democracy, civic virtue and social ethics in the US. Trump as president-elect is the symptom. We must now address the disease.
What Education Can Do
The first thing we need to accept is the basic psychological principal that partially representing, exaggerating or misrepresenting the truth is a normal human action and is to be expected every time an ulterior motive exists. Politics, the media and marketing provide clear examples of this. The motive will always to be either to get votes, attract eyeballs (for ratings) or make sales. The politician proposes but doesn’t necessarily deliver a commitment to enact policies. The media proposes sincerely reported information and “honest” entertainment. The marketer promises satisfaction after purchase.
We all know or at least sense what we could call a normal level of hypocrisy, but through lack of attention to the processes at play our education and culture encourage us to believe that sincerity and adhesion to the truth constitute the norm in all human communication. Lies or exaggerations are therefore a deviation from the norm.
Such a belief fails to highlight a fundamental distinction. Strong personal social bonds—in family or friendship—actually do require a high but not necessarily absolute level of sincerity. The weaker and less personal the bond, the more amplitude exists for bending the truth and eventually promoting hyperreality. Technological prowess and mass marketing not only of goods but also of politicians and policies inevitably push us into the realm of hyperreality.
This should be evident to everyone. But pronouncing such simple easy-to-understand principles has no effect because the formulation remains abstract. Alas, our education system slavishly adores abstraction, which means that we rarely apply to our lives and to surrounding reality what we were expected to know and even tested on at school but promptly forgot once the test was over. We should understand—as many people now do—that schooling must not be about pronouncing facts and instilling what we believe to be the conventional truth but rather about cultivating the learner’s ability to seek meaning in a wide range of experience and research.
So here’s my suggestion for the future of education.
News as a Literary Genre
The first thing we all need to get straight is this simple fact. News is a literary genre. We therefore need to understand what literature is, not simply who wrote which great books. Literary genres have rules. Novelists know what readers expect from a novel. Playwrights understand that the success of everything they produce depends on audience response to the emotion and style of the play they are writing. Journalists know the rules about communicating “information.”
Each writer plays by the rules of the genre. Journalists are also writers. But the journalist’s case is a little more complex. A journalist who works for a media outlet not only plays by the specific rules of the outlet but, it would be fair to say, as often as not is also played by them, in the service of a not always transparent editorial policy, a planned strategy to appeal to a specific audience.
Creative writers have much greater independence but they still have to work within and sometimes around the rules. In their case, rather than just playing by the rules, good writers often play with the rules, shifting them around to create effects of perspective or simply get a jolt out of their readers. They often play on the rules, making fun of them in the process, highlighting the rules themselves as absurd.
This game with, around or on the rules became a staple of modernism in the 20th century. James Joyce, for example, starts Finnegan’s Wake in mid-sentence. The reader must wait until the final paragraph to read the truncated beginning of the same sentence. Schooled readers take this as an erudite joke. But they may also see it as a clever invitation by the author to return to the beginning and begin reading it again because the Joyce believed it’s impossible to make any sense of Finnegan’s Wake at first reading. On another level, it can be interpreted as an invitation for the reader to think about Giambattista Vico’s cyclical notion of history, a key to the structure of Joyce’s thought.
In other words, writers feel compelled to honor the rules of the genre they are writing in, but as often as not creative writers will, in the words of Hamlet, honor them “more … in the breach than the observance.” To understand Shakespeare’s play, we must consider Hamlet not as Shakespeare’s mouthpiece but as a character, with a point of view built from within his fictional context. We read Hamlet’s words to discover the character’s point of view and compare it to other characters’ words. This allows us to tease out Shakespeare’s intentions.
A real journalist—writing “true” or “fake” news or even “fictional news” such as satire—is also a character expressing intentions through a style and not just reporting facts. In the video clip above, the British comic Jonathan Pie uses the character or persona he has created for his own satire, a frustrated television news reporter speaking on camera before the official take that will be broadcast. Here he delivers to his cameraman his personal point of view that “all news is fake.”
The solemn pundits we do see on television are now in the habit of telling us that we simply need to distinguish between the serious mainstream media, presumably dedicated to reporting truthful news, and fake news. Pie uses his persona to remind us that all news is discourse, which means it may be as much entertainment and hidden agendas as it is access to the truth. This is an angle of perception we need to be aware of but which is carefully hidden from us by both the media and our education systems.
For the past few years a convergence of crises—employment, finance, education—have led politicians and pundits to the conclusion that the key to making education effective is to focus on STEM: Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics. Implicit in that message is the idea that other subjects, and in particular the arts and humanities, are of marginal importance.
In the US, it’s difficult to be for something without being against something else, even when the two are complementary. With the realization that STEM corresponds to the needs of key industries and the prospect of good jobs, the liberal arts have come under attack. Even those who defend the liberal arts, such as Alison Byerly, president of Lafayette College, do so timidly, pleading for tolerance rather than inclusion: “The emerging and new emphasis on science and engineering is valid, but you still need liberal arts thinkers applied in other fields.”
In a society that in the name of austerity restricts budgets on everything public (except war) and sees education as a burden on the community, the study of language (literature and rhetoric), of the construction of our communities and nations (history), of the expression of our voices, rhythms and harmonies (music) and of the principles that underlie rational discourse (logic, ethics, philosophy) appear as unnecessary expenses.
The campaign to impose STEM and abandon everything else has gained strength. One Georgetown University professor, Anthony Carnevale, cited in a New York Times article provides the reasoning: “The problem is that education is now the principal determinant of earnings, and we pay no attention to it at all. That’s gone too far. There’s a lot of buyers’ regret out there.”
This may be the first time in history that education has been assessed in terms of buyer’s regret. It tells us how far we’ve gone in the commodification of higher education. In this age of crippling student debt, a university education is all about getting the biggest bang for your buck. In the same article we learn that “frustrated by soaring tuition costs, crushing student loan debt and a lack of skilled workers, particularly in science and technology, more and more states have adopted the idea of rewarding public colleges and universities for churning out students educated in fields seen as important to the economy.”
Capitalistic logic rather than cultural continuity now regulates educational policy, at least for higher education where universities have become businesses and students customers. I should also point out that the emphasis on STEM exacerbates inequality in that it reinforces the perception that there are a limited number of well-paid jobs reserved for the most disciplined and ambitious.
That principle certainly resonates with US culture, which thrives on the notion of rewarding supposed merit in a competitive race. That may explain why few see the risk this represents for society at the very moment in history where many see growing inequality as the greatest threat to the social order.
To some extent we might conclude that given its specific economy higher education is a lost cause. That is why my proposal to see education as the key to solving the problem of our relationship with false news focuses on schooling, primary and secondary, not higher education. To the extent that schooling itself is increasingly seen as a preparation either for STEM related higher education or—as progressives such as Robert Reich advocate—for technical training, this may also be a lost cause. Instrumentalizing education with respect to prospects for future earnings ultimately means impoverishing social culture and undermining democracy.
Two Millennia of Civilization
Once upon a time, going back to Aristotle and continuing forward into the 18th century, the humanities were the staples of European education. Because the world we live in today is dominated by the highly competitive notion of accelerating technological progress and because education itself is seen as a race to the top (implicitly leaving the slower behind), we increasingly accept the idea that the liberal arts are useless because they contribute nothing to a child’s future earnings.
In a society that in the name of austerity restricts budgets on everything public (except war) and sees education as a burden on the community, the study of language (literature and rhetoric), of the construction of our communities and nations (history), of the expression of our voices, rhythms and harmonies (music) and of the principles that underlie rational discourse (logic, ethics, philosophy) appear as unnecessary expenses. The ancient Greeks saw them as essential.
There was a reason why Aristotle and more than two millennia of civilization included them as the basis of education. They combine to construct a rich and vibrant culture, networks of understanding and enquiry. They thus help to provide the foundations of mutual trust through the sharing of different forms of understanding and empathy. Take music for example. For Aristotle music consisted of understanding the structure and emotional force of the formal modes (scales) as played on different instruments.
Musical education played a key role in creating social harmony. In the late Middle Ages and beyond, music was taught and practiced as increasingly sophisticated harmony, polyphony and counterpoint. Today music has become an industry producing downloadable pop songs. The bases of harmony and rhythm and their practice have been either banished or marginalized from our schools and communities.
Plato defines rhetoric as the art of persuasion. Rhetoric and literature stand together as the means of interpreting discourse and intention, a fundamental skill needed to decipher the fake news that so worries us today. Literary studies and rhetorical science enable us to assess the persona who is speaking (or writing) permitting us to understand the multiple effects of perspective in any discourse.
Philosophy provides us with both the logical and ethical bearings that permit judgement of praxis, taking into account the relationship between causes and effects in our real lives, rather than the artificial simulacra of the hyperreality thrust upon us by the media. Finally, history is the study of human interaction in the past that opens our perspective on the choices available to us in the present, once again in the reality of people’s lives, of people faced with real decisions.
Does Anyone Care?
This is the real question. Hyperreality replaces reality to the point that we become more interested in maintaining it than in correcting what it seriously gets wrong. President-elect Trump is a living demonstration of the fact that we have accepted the terms of hyperreality. From his point of view, it is as if we have signed a contract with him to be governed by the hyperreal order. And, as all Americans know, contracts are binding.
Education is the key—an education that teaches us to read and interpret, to become aware of and understand multiple perspectives rather than just contrasting points of view, an education that enables us to distinguish between the personae who send us the messages, true, false or simply distorted by their private interest.
If there is a solution it won’t be political, which means it won’t be achieved by attempting to cancel the contract. Education is the key—an education that teaches us to read and interpret, to become aware of and understand multiple perspectives rather than just contrasting points of view, an education that enables us to distinguish between the personae who send us the messages, true, false or simply distorted by their private interest.
How do we acquire these simple but powerful reading skills? Not by focusing exclusively on STEM, not by calculating how much future revenue we will earn to pay back the debt acquired after enrolling in the cynical enterprises that call themselves universities and sell us their diplomas at an exorbitant price.
Maybe if Jean Baudrillard’s wise observations were introduced into the middle and high school curricula alongside some kind of historical account of philosophy and an appreciation of the role of rhetoric in social and political life; maybe if musical instruction allowed us to understand how society itself is constructed, how people work creatively and collaboratively together according to the dynamic principles of harmony and rhythm—maybe then we would be less prone to being hoodwinked by fake news.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
Photo Credit: Michail_Petrov-96