Wednesday, December 29, 2010

What Do You Know For Sure?

It is a conundrum. We are deluged with information. It is all at our fingertips and yet we have become quite apparently a lot more ignorant.

We could easily become more informed, more rational, more logical. We choose however to be more opinionated, more cantankerous, more aggressive in denial. We read what reinforces us and ignore what we don't  agree with. If it is on the Internet, it must be true. If it is supported by links to other statements we take it as whole cloth etched upon the brow of Zeus.

Here's a spot from The Other McCain that highlights the syndrome:

Anatomy of an Online Hoax

It is quite easy. "No one knows you are a dog." You sit in your basement surrounded by empty pizza boxes and crushed cans of Mountain Dew, still in your pajamas and chopping away at your greasy keyboard. You've got all the credibility of a State Departments spokesperson or a New York Times reporter. Well, I guess that isn't a good comparison any more, is it?

I try to get my students to question things. Rather than sit and be indoctrinated I would rather see them challenge ideas and statements. I use prepared PowerPoint presentations from the course textbook during classes. The textbook isn't my choice. A faculty committee of the college selects and quite often that selection is driven by default publisher offerings and profit margins for the bookstore. We get a voice, but it isn't a very loud one.

As a result, I tend to be a bit oppositional to what is the default ideological position of the textbook authors. I'm a free-market, fiscal conservative and a proud American. We've all got a pretty good idea what the tenured university PhD textbook author is ideologically.

So, when we get charts and graphs that imply certain conclusions I am not averse to dismantling the underlying assumptions. Does this really say what it seems to?

My favorite, and possibly easiest, is the weeping criticism of Texas public education. The chart is in every textbook on state/local government I've ever seen. Texas ranks either 49th or 50th in per-capita spending on K-12 education among the states. OMG! The sky is falling!

Does that say a thing about the quality of education?

First, I have to get my college students to recognize that "per-capita" means per individual so that normalizes the differences in size between the states. Duh!

Then pointing out that states with the highest spending are among those with the worst performance on achievement tests, noting the significant differences in cost-of-living, and dollars do not equate with learning to finish the argument. There are measures of quality of educational outcome, but spending isn't relevant.

Question everything. Take nothing at face value. Research sources. "Trust but verify!"

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