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.

Conspiracy Theory

Last week, Jon Stewart presented a great segment on the array of nutty conspiracy theories that seem to thrive in the desert of Texas. Having lived in Arizona and Nevada, I think there could be something to the idea that the hot, dry weather causes the brain to swell (or shrink?).

Anyway, I have my own conspiracy theory to offer: the probability of any conspiracy actually being real declines by 5% for each additional person whose silence is required for the plan to work.

Moon landing hoax? Alien spacecraft being hidden at Area 51 (for more than 50 years)? The US military preparing to invade Texas?2 Considering the hundreds of people required to keep each of these secrets, all in negative territory of likelihood.

Government agencies conspiring to collect phone data on American citizens? That only took one person, and not even someone high up the chain of command, to expose the deal.

Many, if not most, of these people who claim to see what everyone else has missed (too often on cable “news” channels) also rant endlessly about the incompetency of government. Even though, logically, it is completely impossible for an incompetent organization to formulate complex plots and then keep them totally hidden from everyone except a few loud nutballs.

Of course, logic doesn’t seem to be their strong suit in the first place.

Greedy Teachers and Diane Ravitch

Jon Stewart does another great job of putting the greedy demands of teachers in context compared to those poor, abused hedge fund managers.

Of course, those talking heads whose clueless pronouncements were used in the piece are only listening to themselves, and on occasion, to each other.

Stewart’s guest on the same program was Diane Ravitch.

This is a voice that needs to be heard frequently on those channels claiming to present news and information, not just for eight minutes on a half-hour news satire show.

Thoughts of Sanity

This will be a long rambling collection of observations about the Rally to Restore Sanity from this past weekend. If anyone finds a point to it, please let me know.

Let’s face it, I’m not a “rally” kind of person – always hated stadium concerts and festival seating – but I’m a big fan of the Daily Show (I like Colbert in small doses) so I decided to venture down to the mall last Saturday to see what was happening.

My first clue that this was going to be huge were the long lines waiting to get Metro passes at the end-of-the-line station near our house (clearly lots of first-time and infrequent riders).  And the cars were jammed way beyond what you’d find on a normal rush hour.

One report said that 215,000 came to the show where the organizers were expecting 60,000. I don’t trust the people who do these estimates but it was pretty clear from the ground that somebody didn’t order enough jumbotrons and speakers.

I didn’t arrive at the mall until around the very sane hour of 10 (the show started at noon) so I never got close enough to see what was going on on the stage and couldn’t really hear much.

But I didn’t expect to either. The DVR was set to record the show (and it was a good one) and mostly I was curious as to who would attend and what kind of side shows would they create.

In the small sampling I met along the way, many came from outside the area – Florida, California, Wisconsin, Arizona – and some from way outside the area like the family on the train who flew in from London and planned their vacation around attending this event.

Unlike many of the Mall events I’ve seen on TV, this crowd seemed to be there for a party, some trying out their Halloween costumes a day early and plenty of signs more reflecting an ambition to write for the Daily Show than any particular agenda (one collection here, another here).

So did this expensive (I hope Viacom execs got their money’s worth of publicity) music and comedy concert mean anything more than that?

I have no clue. Stewart and Colbert in a press conference following the show seemed pleased to have put on a good show but were not open to ascribing a higher political or social purpose to the whole thing. Which is probably the right assessment.

For me, the experience certainly wasn’t life changing. But it was the opportunity to spend a few hours with a couple hundred thousand very sane fellow fans of the Daily Show and Colbert packed into a few blocks of the DC mall on a nice, sunny fall Saturday afternoon, and that was enough.

If you’re interested, a few of my pictures from the proceedings are here (with more coming soon).