I’ve been teaching high school English in Connecticut for 26 years. It is my job, first and foremost, to help teenagers develop reading, writing, and critical thinking skills. In addition, I teach Journalism, Media Literacy, and Advanced Placement English, allowing me to share my passion for media and language.
Despite certain teacher stereotypes, I do not attempt to “indoctrinate” my students with any religious or political philosophy. It’s not always easy, considering the abundance of religious symbolism in literature and the unceasing political topics in the media.
Nonetheless, I take pride in ensuring that my approach is nothing but “educational.” If I indoctrinate my students at all, it is in the ideology of critical thinking.
Thus, I can discuss with absolute objectivity Harper Lee’s reference to Jesus in To Kill a Mockingbird when Atticus Finch “turns the other cheek.” To ignore that allusion would be educational malpractice. Similarly, I can ask students in Advanced Placement English to compare the rhetorical devices in the inaugural addresses of Donald Trump and John F. Kennedy without invoking politics. To do so, in fact, would be to skew the dispassionate approach students should apply to rhetorical analysis.
In other words, I teach rather than preach. It’s a mantra hardwired to my English teacher brain.
Even in these contentious times with a provocative president perpetually pursuing the spotlight, I hold fast to my mantra. Still, it’s a challenge to teach with impartiality in an increasingly antagonistic environment.
Science teachers must feel the strain, considering the “indications that the [Trump] administration plans to distort or disregard science and evidence,” according to the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).
On Sunday, the AAAS sponsored a “Rally to Stand Up for Science” to “send a message to Mr. Trump that America runs on science [since] science is the backbone of our prosperity and progress,” explained Geoffrey Supran of Harvard University and MIT.
Journalism teachers feel it, too. How could they not under a president who frequently insults them? It’s a motif first seen during Trump’s campaign when he cordoned off the media in “pens” during rallies and threatened to relax libel laws. Perhaps the ultimate affront — to both journalists and the First Amendment itself — was his tweet last week that called the news media “the enemy of the American People.”
If I am to remain true to my purpose as a journalism teacher in the face of such contempt, I must consistently model the pursuit of truth with objectivity, reason, and fact.
Likewise, consider the work of English teachers at a time when one fact-checking source rates the president’s statements as mostly false, false, or “pants on fire” 69 percent of the time. English teachers, simply, must do what they do best — teach students to think critically using facts and honest language, which brings up the term “fake news.”
Fake news gained popularity during the election when voters accessed their news through social media, leading them to blatant lies invented for no other reason than to attract clicks. In the final months of the presidential campaign, the top 20 fake stories received more “shares, reactions, and comments” than the 20 top real news stories.
But a funny thing happened: “fake news” had acquired a new meaning. In last week’s tweet, for instance, Trump demeaned the news media as purveyors of “FAKE NEWS,” successfully rebranding it as any negative story about him.
“When Trump calls news fake,” reported National Public Radio, “that word implies that the news isn’t serving its basic purposes. It means that the story is intended to serve something other than the public good, and that the author intended to falsify the story.”
“In other words, calling something fake news implies that it isn’t news at all. And using that phrase in the way that Trump uses it is dangerous,” according to University of California-Berkeley professor George Lakoff, because it “undermines the credibility of real news sources.”
Such linguistic jiujitsu is a challenge to explain to adults, let alone high school students. But it’s absolutely essential information for citizens in a democracy to understand.
As GOP strategist Frank Luntz noted, “When you start to suggest that there are alternative facts and you start to criticize your opponents for fake news, you’re undermining the credibility of the one institution [a free press] that holds all the others accountable.”
And it all starts in the classroom where students learn to become responsible citizens through reading, writing, and critical thinking. Even in these politically divided times, one would hope these skills are still considered bi-partisan.
Barth Keck teaches English, including Journalism, Media Literacy, and Advanced Placement Language & Composition, and is an assistant football coach at Haddam-Killingworth High School.
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