Across countless societies throughout history, teachers have regularly occupied highly scrutinized positions relative to their impact on young people and the expectations of their roles in terms of what they can and cannot say to their students.
Among the issues that define our relation to each other, language is undoubtedly one of the most important. It is vital that words are used appropriately and precisely. The study of cultures and societies often can revolve around the use and impact of words to describe human behavior and social currents.
During the past year, a notable phenomenon has arisen that has some history in print journalism but has taken on new meanings and uses in the age of the Internet and digital social media: “fake news.” The basic definition of this practice as it quickly evolved in recent times is that stories and articles would be fabricated and posted through fictional, anonymous, or proxy web entities. The content is completely fictional in nature. Made up. Quite often based on the talking points, trending topics, and attack ads of the moment. By now, this has been a highly documented practice, sometimes from blighted enclaves in Macedonia or from “Cameron Harris, a new college graduate with a fervent interest in Maryland Republican politics and a need for cash,” as reported by actual journalist Scott Shane.
To be literate means to understand vehicles of communication – linguistic, visual, mathematical, and much more. When methods of communication are twisted and used to distort or blind to the truth or the search for truth, this is quite serious and potentially extremely damaging. As history has shown us, it can, indeed, be fatal. When one’s leaders twist, misuse, or distort words, and particularly those that describe vital topics of the day, this can also be lethal to societies and to democracy.
As Thomas Jefferson said, “The basis of our governments being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter. But I should mean that every man should receive those papers and be capable of reading them.”
Language, words, and visual communication are very important, and so is our ability to interpret the various messages that are on the pages and various sized screens in front of us. This is at the heart of what we call media literacy. Teachers must continue to strive to enable our students to scrutinize the statements of those who represent us, of those with whom we engage in discussion and debate, and of those who research and report the stories that depict, interpret, and impact the world that we inhabit.