Opinion: Students today are misled by fake news and fake grades

A college professor says the inability of students to discern fake news reflects a failure to teach critical thinking skills.

Rick Diguette is a writer and teaches English at a local college.

By Rick Diguette

A recently published Stanford University study found that a large majority of students, ranging in age from middle school to college, are consistently fooled when it comes to “evaluating information that flows through social media channels.”  That their parents are seemingly just as susceptible to misinformation and “fake news” should come as no surprise to anyone.  Indeed, it is safe to say that social media has simply exposed a truth as old as the hills: many of us will believe almost anything.

That people are easily fooled about all kinds of things is an unfortunate fact of human existence. As an educator I have always accepted this fact while also believing that accurate information effectively presented is a sure-fire way to dispel the fog of distortion, falsehood, and willful ignorance.

But I’m not so sure about that any more.  And after doing some soul searching in light of Mr. Trump’s surprising ascendancy to the White House, I am willing to believe professors like me share some of the blame.

This newspaper published an op/ed piece I wrote about two years ago in which I made a damning assertion regarding the students in my college classrooms. I complained that their writing skills were so meagre, so unpolished, so ephemeral that even if they had any good ideas or insights those were likely to be obscured by basic errors in grammar, sentence structure, word choice, and punctuation.  This had led me to conclude that I was no longer teaching “college” English.

Not everyone who read that piece warmed to my opinion.  I was accused of throwing my students under the bus, and counseled to view myself as a facilitator of learning, not a judge and jury.  I was also accused of making the same complaint professors have been making about their students from time immemorial.  And since I had nothing new or productive to offer, I was advised to re-evaluate my expectations.

I am revisiting that episode in my life because it speaks to a continuing misgiving I have as a professor of English.  With each passing year more and more of my students cannot make a convincing argument from available facts, and cannot easily distinguish between fact and falsehood.  My misgiving is that I am actively engaged in aiding and abetting their incapacities as thinkers and writers for two simple reasons.

For one, it is much easier to accept that my standards no longer align with what is expected of high school students than it is to work at bringing them up to those standards.  How in 15 short weeks can I possibly undo the harm that’s been done by teachers who ignore the glaring writing and thinking faults I regularly encounter?  And how can I possibly convince these students that my assessment of their writing is valid when their high school teachers led them to believe something very different?  After all, they’ve got a diploma to prove it.

My misgiving is also fueled by the fact that retention and graduation rates now loom so large on the higher education horizon that everything else is dwarfed by comparison. Data is collected and disseminated regarding the A-B-C rates of professors like me, the implicit message being that if too many students fail to receive passing grades the onus is on me to address that.  And some of my colleagues have addressed that by seeing to it that as many as 90 percent of the students in their classes receive an A.  As any statistician will tell you, there’s something wrong with that number.

Revelations about “fake news” stories and the role they may have played in  our recent presidential election have led some to argue that Facebook, Twitter, and other social media outlets must change their ways.  I disagree.  The problem is more fundamental than that and was addressed by Thomas Jefferson in a letter to Charles Yancey in 1816.  Jefferson wrote, “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.”

 

Reader Comments 0

71 comments
Jimmy Sisson
Jimmy Sisson

Everybody passes...grades..society looses

Winky Jones
Winky Jones

And you AJC print trash, you self-righteous son of beaches...

Barbara L. LeMaster
Barbara L. LeMaster

This is why parents should teach their children critical thinking skills.

Frank Castaneda
Frank Castaneda

Safe spaces, liberal agendas in mainstream media and obama falsified propoganda are the root of the problem

class80olddog
class80olddog

One way to "fake" news is just not to report it.  I never saw any articles on CNN concerning criminal acts committed by illegal immigrants - I had to see them on Fox.  It wasn't that they weren't true, it was just that CNN chose not to publicize them.  What happened to the story about the deaf man shot by the police officer?  It became non-news when it was ascertained that it was a black officer that shot a white guy, and only after a high-speed chase and a couple of PIT maneuvers.  The story suddenly did not tell what the newspaper wanted it to tell - another story of "police brutality".

Astropig
Astropig

@class80olddog


You have just put your finger on a large part of the problem-The media's most insidious power is not the power to report,but to ignore.


Think about it-The recent knife attack at Ohio State? Terrible,tragic and totally unprovoked.Thoughts and prayers for the victims. But...


You didn't see anything about it in this space.Radio silence. I think that it is a pretty safe bet that if this piece of human waste had used a gun,we'd see editorial after editorial on the evils of guns,guns are bad,guns,guns,guns...


But no.It's hard to write an editorial about banning sharp things.(How would liberals cook dinner?)or taking issue that the guy was a disgruntled Muslim that essentially committed what would be called a hate crime against Christians if such a thing existed in the liberal/media world.



class80olddog
class80olddog

@Astropig @class80olddog  I just saw a news headline that it is SNOWING  in Hawaii - yes, at more than 13000 feet elevation on Mauna Loa - which normally gets 3.6 inches a year even lower than the peak.  Don't know what they were trying to say with that headline - make it sound like global warming was false, I guess.

Christie Ware Bryan
Christie Ware Bryan

History repeats itself. Look back to the Atlanta Race Riot of 1906. What caused it? The media of the time caused it. Look back to the lynching of Leo Frank in Marietta. Why did it happen? Because of the sensational media .... Tom Watson and his writings .... economics ... politics. Years may change but humans stay the same.

Frances Driver
Frances Driver

One more reason a child needs a firm foundation on which to stand .

Wylie Jones
Wylie Jones

Oh, AJC. Thank you for this example of irony.

E Pluribus Unum
E Pluribus Unum

  The article has some valid points,but it  also 

makes the assumption that because an individual

 is able to write effectively that they will be able to 

discern the validity and accuracy of a news story.

 In 2008, the house of cards established through

 credit default swaps collapsed, but the ability to

 reason and predict the consequences of furthering

 the policies that led to  the financial meltdown rested

 in the hands of some of the most educated and literate

 individuals. There is a difference between knowledge

 and wisdom, and to some extent ,I think the article

 assumes that individuals who have a greater mastery

 in English will be able to discern "fake news" better, but

 considering some of the news stories that affected university

 campuses and led to law suits being filed after further 

scrutiny revealed relevant information, it is hard to argue

 that the problem only rests with current students. Didn't 

William Randolph Hearst make a fortune doing some of

same type of news stories? The bottom line is we all can

be fooled by"fake news" if we are careless, or happen

to be human enough to be close enough to the source

we trust. 

Starik
Starik

"Fake news" has been around for some time. "White people infected the black community with AIDS."  "The criminal justice system is unfair to blacks."  Many, many more.

class80olddog
class80olddog

@Starik  What about "he didn't have a gun, he only had a book" - when there is no book found, there is a gun found at the scene, and it has his fingerprints and dna on it! Is that "fake news"? 

MaryElizabethSings
MaryElizabethSings

If one understands character of people, in depth, one can ascertain who will be spreading fake news (lies) and who will be spreading truth.

pay4play
pay4play

Your candidate didn't lose the November election because of any imagined outside force, Mr Diguette. So spinning your narrative about "fake news" is just more partisan politics, not an education issue.

Turns out too many voters have been victimized by or were just plain tired of ... rampant political correctness.

educator1234
educator1234

Fake news is a fact of life. There is no doubt that even some "mainstream" media outlets spin and edit stores and videos to fit their own values/opinions/agendas. We must teach our students to think critically. As a professor of graduate students, I see students every day who have never had to think or write critically. They have gone through all of their schooling  - even their bachelor's degree - without ever having to synthesize and critique information. All many of them are ever asked to do is summarize info...but not critically evaluate anything. As a result, many never learn to question what they read or hear. They believe what they're "fed" and never learn to seek out information or ideas that differ from their own. This goes to the very heart of being educated... and leads to an ignorant citizenry. And sadly, we have evidence of that ignorance every day.

Ken430TX
Ken430TX

Trump's victory wasn't due to so called fake news.  It was a repudiation of politics as usual.  Citizens are tired of lifetime members of Congress who seem to only care about making a name and money for themselves.  Citizens are fed up with the lack of cooperation between Congress members and their lack of willingness to tackle hard problems like the national debt.  But apparently Congress has not received the message sent.  They just re-elected Pelosi to again lead the Democrats in the House.  Are they really that deaf?

DavidATL45
DavidATL45

@Ken430TX Funny that so many of those "lifetime members of Congress" are GOP.

Cobbian
Cobbian

@Ken430TX At this point, more of the "lifetime members of Congress who seem to only care about making a name and money for themselves" are Republicans.  Are you willing to vote against those Republicans who are the "establishment" now.  It isn't just Dems - it is also the Republicans like McConnell and Ryan.  Do you really think that after 30 years of "tax cuts to produce jobs" that more tax cuts are going to actually produce jobs?

Ficklefan
Ficklefan

The Eduacracy - teachers, teachers' unions, teacher careers, state and federal education departments, bureaucrats, pols, hacks, administrators, administrator careers, administrative salaries through the roof, testing, testing results, local boards of education, local communities and community reputations, vendors, suppliers, the Internet, education pundits, journalists, columnists, huge emphasis on sports prowess, won/lost records, and on performing arts and entertainment and development of "talent" (instead of developing math and language skills and prowess, and who knows what else . . . all of these permeate what passes as education these days in the United States.


You may have noticed over the last 30 years or so, that the primary focus in education is no longer on educating the students and providing them with the basic skills necessary to survive and thrive, grow up, get a job, be productive, get married, have families, raise families, and so on. That is getting to be an after thought, a footnote in the rise of the Eduacracy. The focus is no longer on the inmates, it is on those who guard them. The whole recent APS scandal was exactly and totally about teacher and administrator careers and career advancement taking precedence over the interests of their students.  


The frightening thing . . . the really frightening thing. Technology, computer science, communications, health care, science in general are all advancing now at light speed. They are all snowballs running down hill, and they are huge and rollng faster and faster. And if elementary, secondary, and college students are not moving up through the grades and then out of school with some fundamental skills in math, science, computer science (no, not texting) a day or reckoning is surely going to arrive when America has to start importing Asians, Chinese, Indians, Europeans to handle the most basic jobs in America that pay a living wage. 

WhiteRabbit
WhiteRabbit

The writer is correct.  And no, there is really no way to fix it for a lot of the students--they will have to go on with what skills they have after the college level does its best with limited resources.


It's really shocking to see the level at which some are writing.  But of course they get in and secure loans and play their game, whatever that may be, because that's the deal.


Then try to ask them to read complex literature and expect comprehension: give a reasonably scaled quiz or exam and the next thing you know you've got a frustrated student who is upset and innovating, causing trouble in class, cheating, going to the dean, you name it.


RufusATL
RufusATL

@WhiteRabbit Add to that the fact that professors' evaluations (by these same students) are tied to job security, promotions, etc.--lower or no standards are the results.

Mr Peabody
Mr Peabody

Lack of grammer and spelling skills are apparent in main stream sources. Too much rush to be first or else the writers don't understand basics.

class80olddog
class80olddog

@thr2  I think they rely too much on "spell-check" which can spot misspelled words, but not when you use the wrong word or misspell it so it makes a properly spelled word.  Grammar-checkers help but are also not fool-proof.  No one proof-reads by hand anymore, I guess.

Blynne Roberts
Blynne Roberts

..and undeserved "participation" trophies when your team loses!

Don't Tread
Don't Tread

I was against "social promotion" in the 90s because I saw this coming 1000 miles away.  But I was nearly universally condemned as "heartless" for having that position.


It appears that history has proven me right.


Most college degrees given these days (yes, "given", not "earned") aren't worth the paper they're printed on.  These so-called "graduates" can't spell, use the correct word in a sentence, calculate a percentage of something, follow written directions, and can't even be bothered to check their own work.  When that work is wrong, of course it's someone else's fault.

class80olddog
class80olddog

@Don't Tread  Well, social promotion hasn't gotten any better - in fact, it has gotten worse.  I don't know about college degrees, but HS diplomas are worthless - we know for a fact that there are 8000 people out there who have HS diplomas but could not pass the very basic GHSGT. 

class80olddog
class80olddog

@Don't Tread  The State BOE should take it upon themselves to audit compliance with Georgia State law concerning non-retained (socially promoted) students.  It is the LAW that there has to be UNANIMOUS agreement amongst the principal, the parent(s), and the TEACHER before a student can be promoted who has failed.  And then there must be a clear plan created for how the student will be "caught up".

Tom Green
Tom Green

Here's a word that most likely came out of an ivory tower at some university: differentiate. It's what we "lower" teachers have been required to do for the past 15 years. We take the students we are given and work hard to bring them up to or to surpass their current grade level. Welcome to the world in which we live.

dekalbmom
dekalbmom

While I wince every time I read :"you're" for "your" (in the AJC, too), I am much more upset by an inability to clearly state and support a position.

Is correct grammar essential to express reasoned thought? Students can be taught from an early age to reason correctly, but

1) teachers at every level don't have the time to read and critique and teach reasoning with the current "mile wide and inch deep" curriculum requirements.

2) teachers cannot take the chance of critiquing a student's reasoning for fear of injuring egos and bringing down the wrath of administrators an parents. Rarely do I hear a parent say "What your teacher said is right - let's talk about how you can make a stronger point".

class80olddog
class80olddog

I am confused by the term "fake news".  Obviously fake news is easily dispelled (sighting of Elvis in Montana, Bigfoot pictures, news that Brad Pitt has died) because when you look at different major news outlets, you don't see them. (Believe me, if Brad Pitt had really died, ALL major news outlets would have a story on it).  The bad part is when OPINION is called "fake news".  When someone states an opinion as fact (Hillary murdered Vince Foster by herself), that does not make it "fake news" that makes it an "unsubstantiated opinion". When Donald Trump tweets that 3 million voters who voted for Hillary were illegal - that is not "news", that is an opinion.  So why is there this sudden issue with "fake news"?

CDW2000
CDW2000

@class80olddog fact is a statement that can be proven true or false. An opinion is an expression of a person's feelings that cannot be proven.  To use your examples above, neither is opinion.  They are statements of facts that CAN be proven true or false. That they are unsubstantiated makes them "fake news".


To @redweather's point below, many people either can't tell the difference, or the "fake news" supports their opinion on a subject, so they accept it, even when it doesn't make a bit of sense.


And therein lies the issue with "fake news".  It takes on a life of its own, sometimes leading to things like crazy people shooting up a pizza joint, or an individual suggesting that our election system is the subject of widespread and rampant fraud.

class80olddog
class80olddog

@CDW2000 @class80olddog  Very few "facts" can even be "proven" to be either true or false.  Take global warming - you can say that global CO2 levels are rising, but you can't prove that - because you don't have a CO2 meter on every spot on the Earth.  You can say that CO2 levels are rising on top of Mauna Loa in Hawaii, and that is easier to prove, but most people want to extrapolate the easily provable facts to generalizations.  You can't "prove" that 3 million votes were illegal, because you would have to audit the entire election, verifying every voter registration and verifying that voter actually was the one who voted - it cannot be done.  Now, no one in their right (or left) mind believes that there were three million illegal votes - maybe 1000 and those could just as easily been FOR Trump as against him.  But you could argue that Hillary's statement that no Syrian refugee would be let into this country without "extreme" vetting was a lie because such vetting is impossible.  Indeed, I believe most people realized that this statement was impossible - but they didn't think of it as a lie, but as a normal political hyperbole.  Her idea of "extreme" vetting may have been to simply ask them if they are a terrorist and take them at their word.

class80olddog
class80olddog

@CDW2000 @class80olddog  BTW - you also cannot "prove" that Hillary did not kill Vincent Foster with her own hands.  If it goes to trial, you could say she was found not guilty, just like OJ was found not guilty of killing his wife, but that does not prove that he did not do it.  All that proves is that there was not enough evidence presented for the jury to decide beyond reasonable doubt that he was guilty.  Now, do I think she killed Vince Foster - of course not  but that is my OPINION.  I also have the opinion that JonBenet Ramsey's parents covered up for the her killer - who was a member of the family.

class80olddog
class80olddog

@CDW2000 @class80olddog  Want to see how hard it is to "prove" a "fact - try this one:  "There are no teachers' unions in Georgia".  You find out very quickly that it depends on what your definition of "union" is.  Or maybe I should say, what your definition of "is" is.

redweather
redweather

@class80olddog "Fake news" is a term, or so it seems to me, referring to stories that either have no basis in fact, or stories that are really nothing more than opinion or a sales pitch. The problem is that it apparently never occurs to many people that these "stories" might not be factual. They can't tell when someone is merely expressing an opinion, or when an advertiser is actually selling something under the guise of reporting news.

educator1234
educator1234

@class80olddog @CDW2000 I wish it were true that "no one in their right (or left) mind believes that there were three million illegal votes". I know people who believe that. And they won't even listen to the possibility that the statement is false. And some believe it simply because DT said it   - or tweeted it  - and they're Trump fans and believe anything and everything he says/tweets.. Sad and scary all at the same time. 

class80olddog
class80olddog

@educator1234 @class80olddog @CDW2000  Some people even believe everything that teachers say, also.  I remember a teacher telling me that the reason a wing generates lift is because the air going over the wing has to go a longer distance.  No teacher has been able to say why shaping it backward doesn't work.

class80olddog
class80olddog

If you look at NAEP data for 17-year-olds and data on spending, it becomes clear that reading scores (and math scores) have remained flat, while spending per student has increased dramatically.  Or do you consider this "fake news"?

DrPohl
DrPohl

I hear this echoed from every college teacher I know. It is a problem because clear writing expresses clear thinking; unclear writing reflects unclear thinking. If you know how to write clearly, it will force you to clarify what you mean.

class80olddog
class80olddog

@DrPohl  But, but, but... all I hear from HS teachers is that they shouldn't have to teach the basics (and have their students tested on them), because they are teaching their students how to THINK (which no test can measure).  They are teaching how to THINK DEEPLY.