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

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.”


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About the Author

Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.