BULLHORNS AND TRUTH

Having been around children as an educator for close to twenty years now, I remain fascinated at their inability to separate fact from fiction.  More fascinating still is the unwillingness of adults to do the same. In children, this inability is a biologically involuntary, cognitive limitation. In adults, this unwillingness is a voluntary, self-imposed limitation. Why let facts get in the way of a strong opinion, right? Regardless of the type of cognitive limitation—voluntary in adults or involuntary in children—the end result is the same: flawed reasoning, which leads to inaccurate, often irrelevant, opinions. Stay with me.

Jean Piaget, considered a giant in the research and theory of cognitive development, devoted decades to studying the way children’s brains develop.  At the risk of oversimplifying remarkably complex findings, Piaget concluded that children progress through four stages of brain development at relatively predictable intervals.  Beginning with the sensorimotor stage (0-2 years) and growing through pre-operational (2-7), concrete operational (7-11), and formal operational stages (11-16+), children’s ability to reason is refined over many years, and the ideal cumulative effect of those years is the capability of abstract thought in adults. Problem solving skills and the ability to form viable opinions are optimized at the formal operational stage. Piaget’s theory, like all theories, depends on assumptions, however.

Practically speaking, the formal operational stage in which adults find their ability to reason is largely dependent upon fact gathering efforts and the unbiased interpretation of those facts. The assumption is that adults are 1) willing to gather as many facts as possible and 2) willing to mentally juggle those facts in an effort to form an objectively logical opinion. Children are biologically incapable of this process, generally speaking. Adults, in comparison, are quite capable of formal reasoning but are sometimes too lazy to seek verifiable truth or too preoccupied in validating a preconceived opinion. Wouldn’t these same adults, then, regress to levels of problem solving and opinion forming more accurately classified into the concrete operational stage of reasoning most commonly found in 7-11 year olds? Posing the question much more succinctly, should the opinion of an uninformed or misinformed adult be weighted any more heavily than that of an indifferent nine-year-old child? There seems to be very little difference, in my estimation, between the thoughts of a child who is cognitively incapable of advanced reasoning and those of an adult who is cognitively unwilling.

Recently, I took a virtual lynching by parents I have never met in response to a new school policy, which was factually misrepresented on social media. Facebook, the world’s largest bathroom stall, was the scene of the crime. I accept criticism as a part of my position. Leaders who are not criticized are probably not making decisions of any consequence. Armchair principals are nothing new to me, in other words, and parents are sometimes disgruntled. In fairness, the overwhelming majority of parents with whom I come in contact are well-informed, supportive participants in the education of their children. I consider them teammates in every sense of the word. They call with questions, email their concerns, and politely request meetings when necessary. Madison Creek could not ask for better parents overall, and I could not do my job without their support. Very, very rarely do MCE parents resort to Facebook bashing.

What I find disturbing in these rare occasions, though, is critics’ willingness to form opinions based on inaccurate and/or incomplete information shared on social media. Even more problematic is the dogma with which those critics express these ill-conceived opinions. “If I share my opinions loudly enough or if I repeat them enough times,” they think, “those thoughts become fact.” Then quicker than a mouse click, lunacy gets mistaken for enlightenment, thanks to a handful of “likes” or “favorites.” Social media has evolved into a sort of quasi-empowerment for wrong people with ludicrous opinions. Credibility is regrettably now determined by the number of followers or “likes” and is no longer a measure of experience, expertise, or someone’s access to factual information. I find that trend beyond alarming.

“Likes” don’t make wrong opinions right, and no amount of followers can turn an imbecile into an intellectual. Expressed in a more historical context, no volume of friends or followers would have ever made Hitler right, and no number of likes or favorites would have made Mein Kampf more noble. Consider the fact that Katy Perry has more than 81 million Twitter followers and Nelson Mandela, at the time of his death, had around 1 million followers. For every single person exposed to the insight of a Nelson Mandela tweet, 81 people are exposed to nuggets of wisdom shared by the cerebral juggernaut, Katy Perry. In other words, the girl who sang “I kissed a girl” has a social influence of more than 80 times that of Nelson Mandela. What?!? Yes, KP’s social footprint is 80 times larger than that of the man who ended apartheid.  Scared yet?  Thanks to Katy’s bigger bullhorn, millions of young people know that “California girls will melt your popsicle,” but they don’t know that “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world,” as stated by Mandela. Does this terrify anyone else?  Should the size and volume of the virtual bullhorn really establish the truth or significance of the message?

On an admittedly much smaller scale, uninformed or misinformed moms in a “public” but closed Facebook group are incapable of “liking” ridiculous opinions into a state of validity, although they might have us believe otherwise. That reality doesn’t make my virtual beating any less painful, however. Falsehood doesn’t become fact because it originates from a relatively loud virtual bullhorn in a considerably quiet school community. Further, the frequency with which inaccurate statements are broadcast has no bearing on the validity of those statements. A repeated lie is no closer to the truth after the tenth time it is told than it was after the first time it was told. Finally, a thousand wrong people in agreement are no closer to right than a single fool. “Please keep the information as close to factual as possible” is a stated requirement of this particular Facebook page. That suggestion speaks volumes. Are there degrees of fact?

Considering all of these things while engaging my brain at the formal operational level of cognitive reasoning, I am left with one well-founded conclusion. In this internet age, if I need an inferior opinion about school policy and management, I can now go one of two places: a third grade classroom where children necessarily reason at Piaget’s concrete operational level or a Facebook page where adults unnecessarily problem solve at that same diminished level of cognitive reasoning. Cute, simple-minded opinions are shared regularly in either setting, and both places provide quality entertainment, if not workable solutions.

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