My middle school students are good at telling the difference between facts and opinions.
Facts, they’ll tell you, are things that can be proven.
They don’t even have to be true. They just have to be provable – one way or the other.
For instance: “I’m six feet tall.” It’s not true, but you could conceivably measure me and determine my height.
Opinions, on the other hand, are statements that have no way of being proven. They are value judgements: That is good. This is bad. Mr. Singer is short. Mr. Singer is tall.
It doesn’t make them less important – in fact, their relative importance to facts is, itself, an opinion.
Our government has put forward statements that are demonstrably false: The Bowling Green Massacre. Undocumented immigrants commit massive amounts of crime. Donald Trump had the largest electoral college victory of modern times.
All of these should objectively be viewed as facts. They’re false, but they are provable. Yet when we resort to the kinds of things that should count as proof, we refuse to agree, we come to a clash of epistemologies.
Today, your truth depends more on your political affiliation than your commitment to objective reality.
There was no Bowling Green Massacre. No one was killed in Bowling Green, Kentucky. Certainly there was no large scale mass death perpetrated by terrorists. There were two Iraqi nationals arrested who had been planning an attack outside of the U.S. They had been buying guns and materials here because they were easier to get.
However, many conservatives refuse to accept this. They believe there was a Bowling Green Massacre. And they believe that it justifies Trump’s immigration ban.
The same goes for undocumented immigrants committing crime. They do NOT actually commit more crime than U.S. citizens. In fact, they commit less. They don’t want to attract unnecessary attention and risk deportation.
But once again many conservatives refuse to believe it. With no hard evidence, maybe some anecdotal evidence blown way out of proportion, they simply accept what they’re told by their government and their chosen media.
And Trump’s electoral college victory? He won 306 of 538 electoral votes and lost the popular vote. Forty-five Presidents won by a greater margin. And only two Presidents had a lower popular vote tally.
These are just numbers. I don’t know how they’re controversial or how anyone can disagree, but many conservatives do.
Don’t get me wrong. Liberals do it, too, though to a lesser degree. Ask most liberals about President Barack Obama’s education policy and you’ll get a gooey story about support and progressivism. It isn’t true.
One popular meme shows Obama lecturing a tiny Trump about how he should invest in education and respect parents and teachers. Yet Obama never really did those things, himself. He held federal education funding hostage unless districts increased standardized testing, Common Core and charter schools. THAT’S not what parents and teachers wanted! It’s what huge corporations wanted so they could profit off our public schools!
But to many liberals Obama is some kind of saint, and any evidence to the contrary will be accepted only with great reluctance.
THIS is our modern world. A world of alternative facts and competing narratives.
Part of it is due to the Internet and the way knowledge has been democratized. Part of it is due to the media conglomerates where almost all traditional news is disseminated by a handful of biased corporations that slant the story to maximize their profits.
People end up picking the sources of information they think are trustworthy and shutting themselves off to other viewpoints. There is no more news. There is conservative news and liberal news. And the one you consume determines what you’ll accept as a fact.
As bad as that is, Trump’s education policy is poised to make it much worse.
He wants to radically increase the amount of school vouchers given to students. These allow federal dollars to be used to send children to private and parochial schools. As if the fly-by-night charter schools weren’t enough.
It’s a scam. A get rich quick scheme for corporations at the expense of students. But perhaps the worst part is how it exacerbates our world of alternative facts.
Students at private and parochial schools don’t learn the same things as public school students. At many religious schools they are indoctrinated in conservative market theory and a Biblical view of history and science.
You think we can’t agree on the truth or falsity of facts now? Just wait! What counts as a source will be radically different for the first generation of kids sent to such disparate schools.
This isn’t just about cashing in on education dollars today. It’s about creating a generation of adults educated with school vouchers who accept far right ideas about the world as bedrock truths. Climate change and evolution are hoaxes. Trickle down economics works. Slavery benefited slave and master alike.
These are the false truths the Trump administration hopes to seed into a larger portion of the next generation. And when you indoctrinate children so young, there is little hope they’ll ever be able to see beyond what they’ve been taught.
Conservatives counter that liberals are doing the same thing today in our public schools. That’s why they want to send their children to the private and parochial schools. They don’t want their kids taught about modern science without reference to God. They don’t want them to learn history that puts socialistic policies in a positive light. They don’t want them to learn that white people were ever inhuman to people of color.
And how do you argue with them? How do you have a productive conversation when you can’t agree on what proves a fact true or false?
This is the challenge of our generation.
I don’t know how to solve it, but I know that school vouchers will make it exponentially worse.