I keep pinching myself during this surreal election season to see if I’m dreaming. Alas, it’s no dream; it’s actually more of a nightmare — at least for this high school English teacher.
There’s no need to chronicle the bizarre confluence of histrionics, invective, and aversion to facts that has taken place so far. Everyone knows how Donald Trump eviscerated the political playbook for presidential hopefuls during the primary season. But now that we’re nearing the final stages of the general election, I simply can’t get my head around the seeming disconnect between the real world and the campaign world where fact is fiction, fiction is fact, and old-fashioned reason is nowhere to be found.
The most recent example of this disconnect was the first presidential debate on Monday, Sept. 26, viewed by a record-breaking 84 million people (and defying Trump’s previous charge of it being “rigged” since it was scheduled opposite Monday Night Football). Never before has a debate been fact-checked more exhaustively and never before has the scorecard of fact vs. fiction been so lopsided.
In addition, Clinton earned more points in debate decorum, as Trump interrupted Clinton a total of 51 times during the debate — including 25 times in the first 26 minutes — while Clinton interrupted Trump 17 times throughout the entire debate.
As for the content of each candidate’s answers, most observers thought Clinton’s were filled with more substance.
Given all of the above, Clinton was the obvious victor, right?
“While most news organizations raced to declare Hillary Clinton the clear-cut winner of the long anticipated first presidential debate, a Connecticut professional pollster Tuesday said ‘that was just a lot of chatter,’” according to a CT News Junkie story the day after the debate. “Peter A. Brown, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University poll, said: ‘We will know in about 4-to-7 days who won the debate’ between Clinton and Republican Donald Trump.”
“The real question,” Brown continued, “is whether there is a correlation between the chatter and public opinion. We won’t know that for about a week.”
Indeed, despite the pundits’ declaration of victory for Clinton, the so-called “snap polls” among voters immediately after the debate told a much different story.
“The Drudge Report online vote had 80 percent of respondents giving the victory to Trump, and a Time.com survey had the Republican nominee leading Clinton by 4 percentage points — 52 percent to 48 percent — after more than 1,300,000 votes were cast,” according to Fox News. “CNBC and Breitbart votes also had Trump winning the event, at New York’s Hofstra University.”
Granted, such internet polls are essentially “unscientific Internet popularity contests,” are “not weighted as to what the electorate will actually look like, and have no predictive value.” They are designed to increase page views on websites.
Even so, Fox News reported, “Experts were near unanimous in finding Clinton was more disciplined and armed with greater recall of facts, but Trump’s supporters believe his blunt style and unconventional background are among his best attributes.”
And therein lies the conundrum for this English teacher.
I’ve been teaching Media Literacy for two decades, urging students to hone their critical-thinking skills — to develop what I call an “internal B.S. detector” — so they can arm themselves against the onslaught of slick advertising pitches and disingenuous political messages they’ll face throughout their lives.
In addition, I teach an Advanced Placement course in English Composition and Language whose goal is to “develop critical literacy” and “facilitate informed citizenship” by cultivating the reading and writing skills that students need for “intellectually responsible civic engagement.”
Just how, exactly, can I teach students to think seriously and critically now that facts, apparently, don’t matter, and style — as blunt and belligerent as ever — supersedes substance?
Even professional pundits like Chuck Todd of NBC News say things like “Clinton seemed over-prepared at times.”
Like a true believer, I can only forge ahead. I must have faith in the timeless principles of “logic” and “reason” as I preach the doctrine of critical thinking. My faith will always be tested, no doubt, by the evils of confirmation bias, viral conspiracy theories, and emotional decision-making — especially in this post-factual, digital age. But forge ahead, I must.
As I do so, I will check myself vigilantly, aware that I, too, am subject to biased thinking. Thus, my focus will remain on analyzing words for clarity, meaning, and subjectivity while ensuring that I do not endorse a particular ideology or candidate. Following the presidential election four years ago, for example, I asked my students to speculate for whom I voted using a confidential polleverywhere.com survey. Of the 25 students in my Media Literacy class, 13 said Romney and 12 said Obama.
So while the world around us gets ever more bizarre, I will hold fast to teaching today’s students how to make sense of that world by seeking facts and forming their ideas through reason. Just because neither today’s politicians nor today’s voters seem to do so doesn’t mean our future citizens cannot.
Barth Keck is an English teacher and assistant football coach who also teaches courses in journalism and media literacy at Haddam-Killingworth High School.
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