Conspiracies and Thinking and Writing

Since there are a lot of conspiracy theories floating around these days, I have one of my own. Try this on for size: Betsy DeVos created the Corona-19 virus in a lab and is now demanding that everyone go back to school this fall in order to kill off a large chunk of the older, tenured teachers in the country. 

Admit it, if you’re a teacher of a certain age (like me) and you’re feeling anything from trepidation to terror about the prospect of returning to a classroom, this might seem at least a little bit like it might be true. It confirms our worst suspicions. It seems to explain a lot. It is also complete crap. That’s what a conspiracy theory is: crap someone made up. 

I came up with my theory to make a point that such theories are bogus, and often dangerous, but I did it with several things in mind. First, I played my theory to real fear. There is palpable fear out there (and here in my house of two teachers), and it’s easy to tap into people’s fears. 

I also played to anger. There is a lot of anger out there – anger that once again teachers are not being listened to, but this time the stakes are literally life and death. Anger that Betsy DeVos, who has never taught in her life and is pretty clear about her dislike for public schools, is making the proclamation that schools must open.

Lastly, I wanted it to seem a little out there, but not entirely outside the realm of possibility. This is where I failed.

I don’t think DeVos likes or understands science enough to have come up with the pandemic idea. 

Nonetheless, that’s how conspiracy theories work: you make stuff up that plays on people’s fear and anger, and then you throw it out there and let people’s confirmation bias and gullibility do the rest. I knew mine was fake, and I have revealed my own trick, ala Penn and Teller. I would really like to think that no teacher would actually fall for this theory. But you never know. 

In one of my favorite teaching books, Teaching as a Subversive Activity, the authors (Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner) quote Ernest Hemingway as saying that what every writer needs is “a built in, shock proof crap detector.” They make the case that one of the main goals, if not the main goal, of school, is to help students develop crap detectors.

This is where it gets interesting. As anyone who knows me knows, I have major issues with the Common Core State Standards – especially the instructional shifts in writing. The standards emphasize arguing from evidence from texts. On the surface, and especially in the face of our current mass-gullibility toward conspiracy theories, this seems like a good idea – and one that would help develop our students’ crap detectors.

Instead of getting students to engage in real research, however, what has actually happened is a parody of research writing. To get students ready for standardized tests, writing is reduced to reading three articles and building five paragraph essays around three quotes from the texts. This a parody of crap detection, and of research writing, rather than the real thing. 

This type of writing has also robbed students of the chance to write about their own lives, their own experiences, ideas, and opinions, leaving them adrift when it comes time to write a college essay. But there is an even more important consequence of burying personal writing for most of students’ schooling. 

One habit of mind that is necessary to develop your crap detector is the habit of expressing and questioning your own thoughts. To put it rather indelicately, we need to be able to detect our own crap. We need to develop the habit of interrogating our own biases, especially our own confirmation biases. We need to develop the habit of really listening to other points of view. We need to look for our own rhetorical fallacies, our own proclivity to fall for things without enough evidence or reasoning to back them up. 

Real writing about topics that students actually care about can help students struggle with this mindset. Stringing quotes together from essays you don’t care about to write an essay on a topic you don’t care about doesn’t develop any real habit of mind except unquestioning compliance. We need to help students do the real work and thinking involved in real writing – not test prep. 

Yet test prep is all we are encouraged to push these days. A few conspiracy theories come to mind, but I’ll keep them to myself. I have no evidence. That’s what you do with theories that lack evidence – you keep them to yourself. What I am willing to say is this, from personal experience in the classroom: the way many schools are teaching writing does not develop students’ thinking or writing skills. It develops their ability to follow instructions and fill out a template. Make of that what you will. 

School should be the place where students learn to question things that maybe are a little too good – or too awful – to be true. School should be the place where we learn to negotiate the difficult, hazardous spaces between the subjective and objective, the personal and the public, what we want to be true and what is true. We need to have the self discipline to question ourselves, and even discard some of our most cherished illusions. 

When we are in the midst of a pandemic and misinformation is being pedaled at the very highest levels, it doesn’t get much more dangerous than that. We need a populace that is equipped with a mental toolbox that helps them see through people making crap up. We need a populace with better crap detectors. 

I admitted my conspiracy theory was fake. Not everyone is as honest. There is a crap-load of money to be made with lucrative lies.  Being aware of that fact is another tool in the old crap-detecting toolbox.