Lessons From Jon Stewart

Jon Stewart ended his final Daily Show with this charge to those of us who will miss his voice of reason mixed with humor.

…I say to you tonight, friends, the best defense against [BS] is vigilance. So if you smell something, say something.

It’s a lesson we should be teaching our students.

Ok, maybe his exact wording may not go over too well in schools. But the idea of developing a sense for when the world is being dishonest (or worse) with us is also not a new one. In the 50’s Ernest Hemingway wrote “Every man should have a built-in automatic crap detector operating inside him.” and others have built on that idea since.

I first encountered the concept of helping students learn the art of crap detecting in college through Neil Postman’s wonderful book “Teaching as a Subversive Activity”.1 In recent years Howard Rheingold has been preaching in his writing, videos, and mini course on crap detection on the need for all of us to master the skills to deal with bad information.

Someone could make a case that the “critical thinking” part of 21st century skills already addresses the idea of helping students learn to recognize misinformation. But that’s not the way it’s usually presented in schools.

Most curriculums that claim to include critical thinking usually wrap the process in highly structured activities designed for students to arrive at pre-determined conclusions. Artificial problems that only approximate real-life at best.

What Hemingway, Postman and Stewart are talking about is a much more complex learning process, not to mention more than a little messy. Skills many American adults still lack and certainly not something we do a good job of teaching in school.

Essential Skepticism

I’ve always considered myself a skeptic, but have been a little fuzzy on how to explain to people what that means. Certainly I have a set of beliefs and convictions but always try to stay open to new information that may cause me to revise them. And I’ve certainly changed my mind about things over the years.

In a new joint project between the Huntington Post and the TED organization1, the editor of Skeptic Magazine2 addresses that question of what skepticism is and what being a skeptic means to him.

Skepticism is not “seek and ye shall find,” but “seek and keep an open mind.” But what does it mean to have an open mind? It is to find the essential balance between orthodoxy and heresy, between a total commitment to the status quo and the blind pursuit of new ideas, between being open-minded enough to accept radical new ideas and so open-minded that your brains fall out. Skepticism is about finding that balance. Here is a definition of skepticism:

Skepticism is the rigorous application of science and reason to test the validity of any and all claims.

He continues on to talk about having a “Baloney Detection Kit”, inspired by Carl Sagan, “which consists of a list of questions to ask when encountering any claim”. It’s a good list but certainly not a new idea.

I first encountered the concept of “crap detecting” in Neil Postman’s wonderful 1969 book Teaching as a Subversive Activity3. And he borrowed the idea from Ernest Hemingway who told an interviewer that “to be a great writer a person must have a built-in, shockproof crap detector.”

Here in the internet age, Howard Rhiengold carries forward the concept and preaches that the skills of crap detecting are even more important as we rely on the web for information.  

However, whether you call it “crap detecting” (my preference), “baloney detecting”, or simply skepticism, I agree with Postman’s view that this is an “essential survival strategy and the essential function of the schools in today’s world”.

At least it should be. The centerpiece of every curriculum should be to help kids understand how to question the world around them, not in a cynical way or simply to be contrary, but to clarify for themselves what is worth their time and what is crap.


1 This association may give the Post a little more credibility but I’m not sure it enhances the reputation of TED.

2 One more publication I didn’t know existed.

3 The book is still in print but you can download the full text from here (pdf).

Someone Worth Following

Howard Rheingold, one of my early influences when it comes to online communities (way back in the olden days of BBS and dial-up modems), is now writing a blog for the web version of a very mainstream old media outlet, the San Francisco Chronicle.

In it he plans to “raise issues about 21st century literacies, life online, and — to be true to blogger eclecticism — whatever I feel moved to write about”.

And Rheingold is eminently qualified to speak about living online. He’s one of the few around today who can honestly say “been there, done that”.

The Virtual Community, his book from 1993, is still an excellent read if you’re curious about the origins of all this social networking stuff.

Ten years later, he updated the evolution of those virtual communities in Smart Mobs, which described the burgeoning impact of wireless networks on society.

Rheingold is a very wise, although somewhat underheard, voice of wisdom and experience in these days of chaotically expanding online social networks. And someone worth following.