Thursday, November 01, 2018

The Serious & Historic Importance of Media Literacy | Downloadable Posters for Media Literacy Week

Media Literacy Week is November 5 - 9, spearheaded by the National Association of Media Literacy Education (NAMLE). I want to urge you to join the NAMLE email/membership list (free) to get information and resources around media literacy and Media Literacy Week. At the bottom of this post, you'll also find a link to a fun set of downloadable posters for Media Literacy Week.

Joining NAMLE will also give you access to the 2018 Media Literacy Fair this coming week (I'm the organizer). Organizations and projects related to media literacy education will be showcased in the virtual "exhibit hall," and on Wednesday many of the organizations will have live staff available to talk to you in their virtual video "booths." More information at

My dad (Fred Hargadon), who was a long-time dean of admissions at Stanford and then at Princeton, often told the story of being in his first English class at Haverford College, a Quaker-founded liberal arts school. Something of a high-school ne'er-do-well who then managed to finagle his way into Haverford after serving in the Army, my dad finished school in three years while working nights at the post office. That drive may or may not have been related to a serious transition in his life that came in that English class. "Fred," his teacher asked while they were studying Huckleberry Finn, "what does it mean when Jim tells Huck that a storm is coming?" My dad replied, "It means it's going to rain." "No, Fred, what does it mean?" My dad, still confused and somewhat frustrated, replied again, "that it's going to rain!"

In my own life, I had a comparably memorable but longer experience when I was an exchange student in Brazil for a year in high school. My Brazilian host family was very loving and was always ready to challenge my America-centric naivete about the world. While my experiences of living in another country included the challenges of learning a new language and eating unfamiliar food, it was learning to see the world through the eyes of other people and their culture that was the truly lasting gift of that year. That kind of intellectual and emotional growth is not easy, but it is surely at the heart of the kind of formal and informal learning experiences that actually change us. After college I spent four years at the Stanford Alumni Association leading group tours, the benefit of which was working with local tour operators and, not in the regular tourist role, getting to know many of them as people. What travel or living in other counties does for us, in its best case, is to help us see and understand how other people see and understand the world differently. (Now you know why I have such a passion for global education.)

Cultures and institutions are built on narratives, that is, defining stories that allow their members to find meaning in work and living, and also allow the passing on of a set of values to next generations. Like the shadows in Plato's Cave, though, almost all cultural and institutional narratives are simplified stories projected onto the general members by those with the power and authority to do so. We live in and through these narratives, but at a certain point in time we can come to recognize that what we adopted as truth are actually just stories, and that they are only virus-like approximations of truth, because as it turns out, truth is really hard to get at and isn't necessarily easily communicated. As we're discovering again in our current political and social debates right now, ideas spread because they are good at spreading, not necessarily because they have truth in them.

Back to Mark Twain: “A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.” This quote itself actually helps to exemplify the problem, since it's attributed to Twain, but it probably was not said by him. Who likely said it is not actually easy to determine ( (If you thought that little example was fun, you're going to love the posters linked at the bottom of this post.)

Brazil was not the last of my journeys outside of my own cave. It was just the start of discovering the incredible variety of caves that people grow up, and often continue to live their whole lives, in. Significant moments of rethinking the world and the accepted narratives for me often came through books and writing: Confessions of an Economic Hitman, The Crisis of Democracy, Salt Sugar Fat, and the Snowden and Wikileaks material.

The ability to share ideas that challenge existing power and control is fundamentally a part of the story of human progress. The advent of the printing press marked an incredible milestone in our social evolution, considerably reshaping and re-distributing the power to communicate ideas. But disruptions to the power to control ideas and thinking do not come without significant human cost. We may think we have evolved past killing individuals whose ideas are considered heretical, but how then might we explain the 250,000,000 (that's right, 250 million) who by one estimate were killed by governments in the 20th century? (See How many have died just in Iraq since the 2003 invasion (see How do we discuss that? What are we to think about it?

At the heart of my dad's experience in that freshman English class, of my experience in Brazil, and of the many experiences available to us because of the printing press and now the Internet, is the degree to which the human condition depends on individuals having access to information, being challenged to think critically and with more clarity, and in having forums for the open discussion and thoughtful and informed challenging of ideas.

So when I hear anyone (especially and including educators) say that the solution to a current social or political issue is for one group of people to determine what is correct thinking and to enforce that through censorship or control, it shakes me. When people are quick to label any questioning or independent thinking as "conspiracy theories," I ask myself: did you not watch or learn about the tobacco industry misrepresenting the truth for decades? Do you not read the business or political news with scandal after scandal, each exposing webs of collusion to bring profit or power to some at great harm to others? From business to banking to pharmaceutical to agricultural chemicals to weaponry to food to politics... To say, to those who are sincerely looking for meaning in the chaos of self-serving motivation and activity across the span of human endeavors, that questioning the powerful is less intellectually rigorous than to believe the uncorroborated narrative, is to ask them to relinquish their intellectual agency and that which is at the very core of human progress: the ability to think independently. As a student of history, using the framework of power and control has served me well in studying the past. Cui bono? Freedom is fragile, and the cost of maintaining it is a willingness to allow independent thought and dialog.

It's as though we live in some incredible fog of cognitive dissonance right now. The idea that we are not subject to the same human emotions, distortions, and temptations, or the same foibles and frailties of behavior, that have plagued mankind through all of history is at best naive and at worst downright dangerous. Who truly has the right to think for others?

Social media platforms, like Facebook and Twitter and YouTube, have been given unique legal protection (Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act) for the opinions expressed on those platforms because those companies "offer a forum for a true diversity of political discourse, unique opportunities for cultural development, and myriad avenues for intellectual activity." So this summer when those platforms began to admit that they were first secretly and then openly censoring viewpoints based on often-fuzzy principles that are not universally applied, we should be very concerned.

The answer to bad or lazy thinking is to teach better thinking, not to censor. Education is the key. There could be no more important time to be teaching media literacy than right now--maybe in the entire history of the world, given the ubiquity of electronic platforms for the airing of ideas, given the danger to that freedom of expression right now, and given the use of those electronic tools for monitoring and tracking thought by governments and corporations. There is an unparalleled need for civil dialog if we can find our way to it, and for endeavors and investigations to uncover truth and abuses of power.

But as it also turns out, this moment is showing that we're of two minds about education. This should come as no surprise, since as far as I can tell most cultures have had these same mixed educational motives.

On the one hand, education is about social control. We want to pass down certain ideas. It's about creating conformance, because it's much easier to run a family or an organization or a business or a country when people have learned the importance of obeying. But on the other hand, education is about strengthening the individual capacity for thinking, because a group or society that sees its strength in the combined capacities and capabilities of its individual members is less fragile, and arguably less dangerous, than one that sees its strength in demanding agreement and conformity. If we absolve ourselves of responsibility for teaching people to think critically and with understanding, and instead believe that we were supposed to select what is the right information for them, we're making a grave and historic mistake.

There's a colloquial use of the word "school," as in "getting schooled." It's when an opponent or adversary is better than you and beats you, teaching you a lesson. My personal estimate, based on a survey I did this past year (, is that teachers believe that close to half their students leave school "beaten," with the belief that they are not good learners, with only a small few students being, and knowing that they are, intellectually capable. Even then, the most successful students will often tell you that they don't necessarily think that they have become "good learners," but that they have been good at the "game of school." So while we say (the narrative, notice) that schooling is about helping every student to become a good learner, is that actually the truth of the matter?

To promote censorship is to promote a conception that the recipient of information is passive and incapable--which is a terrible self-fulfilling prophecy. It sees the individual as never more than a follower and a victim, without the ability to grow and exercise their individual thinking capacity, or to be an agent in the destiny of his or her own life. This then becomes the ultimate justification for propaganda. We, the smart ones, know what is right and the others will never understand it, so we have to manipulate and coerce them to follow along.

So when I was asked last year if I would consider serving on the NAMLE board, I had a lot of reasons for believing that this is a particularly crucial topic for our time and that I wanted to be part of this discussion. This post reflects my personal views and why I'm serving in this role--it in no way is intended to necessarily represent the views of other board members, the organization, or it's partners. While I'm not speaking for the organization, I am speaking in behalf of NAMLE and the many other good and devoted organizations working to teach media literacy in school and to students. I ask you to please consider supporting them. NAMLE, like its partner organizations and many others, operates on an incredibly small budget, and donations and support help to make that possible. Got to and look for the donation button.

And please do join the NAMLE member email list to be kept informed of the activities this coming week.

Here's your promised link to the Media Literacy Week posters. Enjoy! They were designed by Daniel Rhone (see his work at and are very clever...

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