As everyone knows, those who don’t know the past are doomed to repeat it. As we face wave after wave of attacks on our organization, it’s more important than ever that people understand what got us here.
The roots for the formation of the Illinois Education Association were planted during the famed Lincoln–Douglas debates of 1641. It’s important to note that back then debates were far different than what we consider the norm for today.
They were not the civil, totally factual, non-hyperbolic discourse we are accustomed to in contemporary election cycles. Seventeenth century debates involved sadistic feats of strength and endurance; tests of alchemy proficiency, as well as a macabre musical/variety competition which could best be described as “The Voice” meets “The Hunger Games.”
Few know that every second of the first round of debates, lasting a now-legendary 1,741 consecutive hours, was the first political event ever streamed on Facebook Live.
While history tells us that Lincoln won the debates by a large margin, what gets lost in the facts is what led Stephen Douglas to form what eventually became the IEA.
After Douglas had to drop out of the debates due to being mauled by a polar bear during the barbershop quartet portion of the musical portion, Lincoln pounced on the opportunity to finish his mortal enemy off once and for all. He immediately mobilized Facebook against Douglas to spread vicious personal attacks and misinformation.
Douglas responded by utilizing a primitive form of Twitter, which involved scribbling temporary tattoos on European red squirrels and strategically releasing them in town squares.
Sensing the danger this highly effective new form of social media posed to his presidency, Lincoln immediately called for Congress to ban this insidious medium. It was in defending this fundamental right to free speech that Douglas formed, and became the first president of, the Illianowa European Red Squirrel Advocates.
Lincoln’s ban was unanimously overturned by the Supreme Court. However, IERSA quickly struggled to recruit new members as residents of what is now known as Illinois quickly migrated to form Snap Chat. Douglas made the critical decision that the only way to combat the attacks on IERSA was to start on the ground floor.
The best way to get the message out? Recruit teachers to spread the virtues of squirrel messaging to our nation’s students. The push was wildly successful, but it wasn’t long before the new voices had their say and the name was changed to the Illinois Education Association.
It was on the urging of IEA that Illianowa changed its name to the now familiar Illinois. It’s this reason that Feb. 30 was designated as Illinois Education Association Day and is still celebrated, to this day, across our great state.
The rest of the story writes itself.
When trying to coach Jerry Seinfeld into how to pass a lie detector test, George Costanza famously uttered, “Jerry, just remember…..it’s not a lie if you believe it.”
Welcome to 2017.
The whole concept of “alternative facts” became an instant social media sensation after Trump advisor Kelly Anne Conway used the phrase to justify false claims about the size of Trump’s inauguration crowd.
Since the introduction of this concept, it’s become a total coordinated wave of lies, half-truths and statements that are completely invented to support anything coming from the oval office.
It’s no secret that educators have warned about the impact of removing civics and social studies from our classrooms under cover of “increased accountability.” I’m also convinced that it’s pouring gas on fire with people embracing alternative facts lies and the insidious impact of fake news stories.
The impact of the shift from schools over the last 20 years is starting to show very real impact on our society.
There’s greater impact than that, though, with what the accountability age has done to us. It crippled the ability to teach critical thinking and analysis. It goes deeper than. There’s a coordinated effort to not give our students these skills.
This isn’t an alternative fact. It was horrifyingly real. One doesn’t need to be an active conspiracy theorist to understand the thought process behind this move.
When I first heard this story, I thought it was something from the parody website the Onion. It isn’t a parody and it isn’t a coincidence. It’s real and it’s intentional.
One of the massive areas of emphasis in Common Core is teaching deeper understanding. It’s injecting literacy and critical thought in literature across multiple subject areas. It’s more important than ever that we embrace this concept as educators.
We need to not just teach reading the words on the page. We need to teach kids to interact with texts and focus on deeper meaning and understanding. It’s deeper level processing that’s been lost as we scrambled to focus on kids as test takers.
Under No Child Left Behind, test taking became a genre. That concept was actually presented at a literacy conference I was at when NCLB began to take hold. The need to achieve a certain number became the primary driver of our classroom instruction. It also led to having to teach things at the surface level and not going beyond into the deep analytical thinking that these times require.
That is what got us here. Social Studies was even more eviscerated by this seismic shift in our classroom instruction. What was a subject that was glossed over many times with focusing on its own set of alternative facts about the narrative of our country to begin with, got even less emphasis as schools struggled to turn kids into test takers to avoid the draconian punitive measures of NCLB.
We’re seeing the direct impact of what this does to our society as the students who grew up in this age are entering the work force and becoming the new leaders in our society. With each passing day, it seems that people have more and more difficulty with differentiating what is plausible and what isn’t. People are shockingly unaware of our protections as citizens. People are indifferent to the effect that the political process has over all of us.
What’s most frustrating about watching this endless vicious cycle of flat out lies is that people are completely either unaware or unwilling to take the time to determine if something is factual or not.
Pouring kerosene on this fire is social media, particularly Twitter (which I couldn’t live without these days) and Facebook. The problem, though, might not be what you think it is.
It isn’t the proliferation of cowardly trolls who hide behind the inherent (perceived) anonymity of the internet to bully, threaten and spread hate. The problem is how easy it is to insulate ourselves from different viewpoints. The meritocracy of these platforms is just making things worse.
When someone says something you don’t like on a topic, it’s far too easy to simply hit a button and unfollow (or block) them. Don’t agree? Within two seconds, they’re gone. It’s that easy.
With just a few clicks, you can be quickly surrounded only by people who think the exact same way you do.
This isn’t helping the problem with fake news. Not only are we moving away from teaching critical thinking and analysis of what we read and take in, but we also have an intrinsic drive to surround ourselves only with people with whom we agree. It’s a lethal combination.
I occasionally listen to some of the more “colorful” thinkers on talk radio, one of whom most likely started the “fake news” controversy about wire-tapping. Despite it making me have an almost instant desire to shove ice picks in my ears, I feel it’s important that I do it. I will watch different news outlets, even the ones that I don’t agree with to see what they’re saying.
It’s important to hear more than one point of view. When you don’t hear any argument other than your own and only see one side of things, it leads to the mass hysteria we’re seeing and the belief in alternative facts.
When you couple this with a lack of education, then things really spiral out of control. That’s where we’re at.
We are not helpless in this fight. It has never been more important that we take control of this plague and teach to our students to read for deep meaning. We need to stress critical and analytical thinking and to encourage them to take a skeptical look at things. We need to teach them what science means and the difference between true scientific, peer reviewed studies and an opinion. We need to teach how to use math and true data, which can be proven to be correct.
You often hear people say it’s impossible to have a wrong opinion. This is an alternative fact. If you believe the world is flat, your opinion is wrong. It can be proven that you are wrong by science. As educators, we can combat this mindset.
It’s time to go back to focusing on not just teaching how to take a test but how to think, how to analyze, and how to question. Asking questions is a great thing. Thinking deeper is a great thing.
With this we need to encourage our students to seek input outside their comfort areas. Confronting data and input that don’t necessarily mesh with our own beliefs, is not a bad thing. Skepticism is a good thing.
However, if we are going to challenge our students to do this, we need to lead by example.
We have the power to make sure future generations don’t get duped by alternative facts, lies and fake news. It will have to come from teaching kids to be independent thinkers and to critically look at things.
If we don’t, then the future of Illianowa and the rest of the country is in trouble.
Thanks for reading. I welcome your comments in the section below and you can follow me (especially important if you don’t agree with my viewpoints) on Twitter at @paulgamboa.