Teaching in an age of Post-Trust Politics | @GeogNewHoD

IMG_0879Matt Collinson is a Labour Party supporter and has been teaching for four years, most recently in London, and is about to become Head of Department. 

“You need to support your points with evidence.” I need a marking stamp with this on because I write it so many times in pupil’s books. A similar point is expressed clearly in exam mark schemes at GCSE and A-Level in my subject, Geography. I teach student about real life examples, real places, with real processes and real people, stressing that they are studying the real world. We call them ‘case studies’, and by-and-large pupils hate them because they need to learn facts.

In fairness, ‘facts’ are relatively easy to come by. The need to know a fact like a date has been diminished by the easy of tapping a few words into a search engine on a phone and having the answer handed to you (in easy copy-and-paste format). What has not changed for me as humanities teacher is teaching students how to communicate these facts in PEEL paragraphs (point-evidence-explain-link for the uninitiated).

However, the role of facts in debate seem to be being lost, and all walks of ideological life seem to be part of the issue.

This became apparent during the EU referendum campaign when ‘experts’ seemed to be ignored. People seemed to be tired of hearing what academics, economists, and seasoned politicians were saying. The siding with polemical, populist sentiment is not new but the clear distrust of expertise seems newer.

Then Monday’s US Presidential Debate took to the stage. Donald Trump has played the anti-establishment card as fervently as Nigel Farage has done in Britain but this has become synonymous with anti-truth. Trump flat out lies, time and time again. For just one example, he said he has never denied climate change but his twitter timeline suggests otherwise. Both candidates said some things that are not quite true but, as this graph suggests, Trump was far less accurate and was spouting falsehoods like an alternative reality Trevi Fountain. How far this has gone even led to the somewhat bizarre situation where Hillary Clinton told the audience to check her website out for it live fact checker. I even had my head in my hands when Clinton referred to expert economists verifying her economic plan, thinking that such an endorsement whilst well meaning is possibly futile and worse, detrimental. How far have we strayed from facts, reality and integrity?

Back in Britain, aspects of the Labour Party seems completely unable to come to terms with facts and reality. Polly Toynbee in a piece in the Guardian has written about the way she has found some Corbyn supports so blinkered by their own passionate views that they display similar levels of suspended reality to religious faith. At first this seems an unnecessary attack on religion but perhaps hints at a new secular religion of political support where stone cold facts are not required for impassioned belief. She describes how one Corbyn supporter heckled a speaker who pointed out the electoral reality that Labour need to win some people who voted Conservative in the 2015 election. The heckler retorted that, “Why? We don’t want Tories.” Toynbee points out that the electoral mathematics does not add up for Jeremy and Momentum but this will fall on deaf ears despite the very transparent statistics. This is all before we get into debates about ‘othering’ of people who might be slightly different and assuming that all people who vote for a particular party are therefore automatically the enemy.

Such generalisations, lying, blatant untruths and distrust of people with different perspectives are anathema to good Geography and I believe to bringing up good global citizens. That is why I will keep telling my students to use facts, statistics and evidence to support their views. First, it helps them communicate their points in a persuasive and robust fashion; second, it teaches them the importance of informed discussion around an issue and not just mud-slinging; third, it helps them realise the importance of critical thinking for when they hear things on the TV or read things on the internet so that they are conscious of when someone does not use evidence and wary that such ‘facts’ may not be entirely true either; forth, reality is the basis of our understanding of the world and if we disregard it then we will make terrible errors of judgement.

3 thoughts on “Teaching in an age of Post-Trust Politics | @GeogNewHoD

  1. People seemed to be tired of hearing what academics, economists, and seasoned politicians were saying.

    You mean those academics, economists and politicians you agree with.

    Plenty of politicians campaigned for Leave. Or do only friendly politicians count as “seasoned”?

    That people don’t trust economists — the people that got us into the current economic malaise — is not really a cause for concern. Perhaps we should have trusted those economists that said that if UK didn’t join the Euro it would regret it? Or those that built the banking system that almost collapsed recently. (And in any case, the decision to leave the EU wasn’t about economic issues for most people, so the input of economists was largely irrelevant.)

    As for academics — outside their own sphere of knowledge most are no more knowledgeable than any well read person. I don’t even trust education academics on matters of education, so I sure am not going to trust them on anything.

    Really, what you are saying is “waaaah, people don’t agree with me, so they must be stupid”. It’s a position common in the Labour Party, for sure, but one of the main reasons why it is leaking electoral support.

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