The Future of Education in a Post-Truth, Pro-Trump America

Dec 22nd, 2016 | By | Category: Opinion
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Editor’s Note: The views in this opinion piece reflect the concerns of the author, and they are not an official position of CATESOL. I welcome other opinion pieces on this issue or on other controversial issues of concern to readers of the News.—Karen Bleske

new official author pic of Andy Curtis

Andy Curtis

By ANDY CURTIS

—As CATESOL News readers know, the theme for CATESOL 2016, held November 17- 20 in San Diego, was “2020 Vision: Embracing the Past, Planning the Future.”  In the abstract for my Friday Plenary, “2020: Where Hindsight and Foresight (might) Meet,” I wrote: “Predictions about the future, even over relatively short time frames, such as the next few years, between now and 2020, are notoriously unreliable.” As it turned out, almost all of the US presidential election polls did indeed prove to be now-notoriously unreliable.

I also wrote in my plenary abstract: “However, if we look at where we are now, and how we got here, we can consider where we might be headed in the near future.” But almost none of my colleagues and friends in international education had planned for what I referred to in my actual plenary as a “Post-Truth, Pro-Trump” America. In my abstract, I referred to the Nielsen market research group, according to whom the “most distinguishing characteristic” of people in the US in 2020 “will be their ethnic and racial makeup.” And Nielsen predicted that “by at least 2025, over half of all families with children will be multi-cultural. Less than half will be native-born non-Hispanic white.”

Those were to be the themes of my CATESOL 2016 plenary—what a multilingual, multicultural, multiracial America meant for us as international educators. But that all changed on November 8, when more than 60 million Americans chose the most openly prejudiced candidate in the history of the US to be their next president. During my plenary, I supported that description of the president-elect of America (PEA) by presenting evidence in the form of direct quotes from him about women, people of color, Muslims, Mexicans, people with disabilities. … The list of those whom the president-elect blamed for all the ills of America was very long, very accusatory, and very angry.

Like many of us who have been the victims of the kind of fear, anger, and hatred represented by those statements, and who have devoted our professional lives to challenging those things, I was shocked. How could something like this have happened? And what does this mean for the values of associations such as TESOL, CATESOL, and others? I speak of values such as diversity, inclusion, and international education. So, instead of considering the future of a more multilingual, multicultural, multiracial America, I started looking for answers to those questions instead.

As a language teacher and learner, I am of course naturally inclined to look for answers in the language, and one of the answers I found was within the Oxford English Dictionary’s 2016 Word of the Year: “Post-Truth.” As the OED website explained, although “the concept of post-truth has been in existence for the past decade,” the OED “has seen a spike in frequency this year in the context of the EU [European Union] referendum in the United Kingdom and the presidential election in the United States.” The OED also explained that its word of the year “has also become associated with a particular noun, in the phrase post-truth politics” [emphasis added].

The Pulitzer Prize–winning site Politifact describes itself as “a fact-checking website that rates the accuracy of claims by elected officials and others who speak up in American politics.”  According to the site, of 339 statements made by the PEA during the election campaign, only about 50 of those statements, or 15%, were found to be “True” or “Mostly True,” while the same number (51/15%) were found to be “Half Truths.”  That left a total of 237 statements, or 85%, found to be “Mostly False” (63/19%), “False” (113/33%), or “Pants on Fire” false (61/18%), which comes from the line “Liar, Liar, Pants on Fire,” chanted by children when lies are so big and so obvious that even the most gullible should not believe them.

The same site analyzed 293 statements made by Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton during the election campaign, and it found that 51% of her statements were “True” or “Mostly True,” with 24% or 61 statements found to be “Half Truths.” About the same number of statements were found to make up the other three categories of “Mostly False” (40/14%), “False” (29/10%), and “Pants on Fire” false (7/2%). These are not small differences, but the sad fact is that more than 60 million American voters did not appear to care about facts or figures, or about the truth compared with statements that can be shown, verifiably and incontrovertibly, to be complete lies.

The Economist tweeted on November 1, 2016: “Obama founded ISIS. George Bush was behind 9/11. Welcome to post-truth politics,” and the British newspaper The Independent tweeted on November 8, 2016: “We’ve entered a post-truth world and there’s no going back.” What does this mean for us as educators? For one thing, it seems that attempts to teach critical thinking appear to have failed for enormous numbers of people in Britain, with the BrExit vote, and in the US it also looks as if the emphasis on the importance of truth and knowledge, in terms of knowing facts, may also have been misplaced.

It is too early to tell how the attitudes reflected in the PEA’s statements on race, homosexuals, women, immigrants, Muslims, the disabled, and other groups will shape the US in the years ahead. But given the outpouring of all that rhetoric, it does seem likely that education in America, especially international education, may need to brace itself for some very challenging and difficult times ahead. Likewise, commitments to such fundamental values as diversity and inclusion may also come under aggressive attack.

Another language-based indicator of where we might be headed was also found on the OED’s shortlist of the Words of 2016: “alt-right,” which the OED defines as “(in the US) an ideological grouping associated with extreme conservative or reactionary viewpoints, characterized by a rejection of mainstream politics and by the use of online media to disseminate deliberately controversial content.” The “alt” here is short for “alternative,” but “alt-right” appears to be a polite way of referring to neo-Nazism—although why anyone would feel the need to refer to such beliefs politely is beyond me!

This will be my last piece for the CATESOL News, which I have much enjoyed writing for over the last three years. I had hoped to finish on a high note, but even though such a note can no longer be heard above the cacophony of discord and dangerously deep divisions, I am profoundly grateful for the TESOL International Association and for CATESOL, as the work of such associations may be more important now than ever before.

From 2015 to 2016, Andy Curtis served as the 50th president of the TESOL International Association. He is now serving as the association’s immediate past president (2016-2017).

 

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