Lloyd Best used to say that Trinidad and Tobago is a country where people walk about with their heads empty. That may explain why, for so many of us Trinis, facts are sacred things.
“Facts are facts,” India’s Jawaharlal Nehru once declared, “and they will not disappear on account of your likes.”
More than 150 years before Nehru, late American president John Adams had already warned that facts ‘are stubborn things. Whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations or the dictates of our passion, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.’
But it is Ray Bradbury’s dystopian Fahrenheit 451 that lets us see clearly the link to empty heads:
Give the people contests they win, Bradbury’s Captain Beatty says to Montag, by remembering the words to more popular songs or the names of state capitals or how much corn Iowa grew last year.
Cram them full of noncombustible data, chock them so damned full of ‘facts’ they feel stuffed, but absolutely ‘brilliant’ with information.
Then they’ll feel they’re thinking, they’ll get a sense of motion without moving. And they’ll be happy, because facts of that sort don’t change.
Writing post-Adams but pre-Nehru, Bradbury has presciently shared with us a disturbing reality that, in the media age in innocent T&T, we should have no trouble recognising. Probably better for us to avoid people like that.
And we are certainly better off without people like ne’er-do-well Samuel Langhorne Clemens, who dared to espouse this piece of heresy in the early 1900s: “I am not one of those who in expressing opinions confine themselves to facts.”
My empathy is complete. I have been told I have a problem with facts. At least one critic has dismissed my Media Monitor pieces as ‘at best, nit-picking’.
Some critics say my columns are ‘not based on research’. They’re ‘opinionated’, say another handful. They ‘offer no solutions’, say a dozen more.
One comment in reaction to what I wrote recently on the conduct of the Republicans during the Donald Trump Senate impeachment trial, read in part: “Getting people worked up and preying on the anti-Trump sentiment is easy, uncovering the truth and actually educating the reader is much more difficult.”
Me? Uncover the truth and educate the reader? Methinks thou dost flatter me. I have no such grand design.
I may try to share with readers a truth or two about the pre-Fahrenheit 451 world in which I would prefer to live, but uncovering the truth and educating the reader? Not I!
In fact, when TV6’s Joshua Seemungal speculated right here on Wired868 that I write ‘to remain relevant’, I publicly conceded that he had hit the nail flush on the head. I do hanker after the good old days before the paradigm shifted.
Over 50 years ago, a London subway wall screamed four words at me: Education kills—by degrees! Like Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, that graffiti artist was prescient but not entirely accurate; it’s schooling, formal education, that kills.
Check right here on Wired868. How many readers insist on all columnists being equal, doing the same thing, providing facts to ‘educate (…) reader(s)’? Who needs boutiques when there are department stores?
Our so-called education system puts a premium on sameness, on standardisation, on conformity, on blending in with the landscape. We’re not particularly good at quality production, but we’re masters at quality control.
The system thus spawns the kind of rampant authoritarianism that allowed the current minister of education to declare with impunity within a month of his appointment that “There will be no sex education taught in our schools.” We’re talking 2015!
As if, although not necessarily in the classrooms, sex education is not already being offered for free in many, many schools!
Classrooms are familiar terrain for me. Three decades spent in the formal school system conscientiously comparing them with playing fields torpedoed the widespread orthodoxy that equated schooling and education.
Teachers are facilitators of, not purveyors of education. Education is unequivocally process, not product. It is, first-hand experience has taught me, what is left when you have rid yourself of all of the ‘noncombustible data and facts’ which Bradbury recommends you be crammed full of.
Education is, in the words of one highly respected expert, ‘the utilisation of the acquisition of knowledge’. In other words, not what you know but what you do with what you know.
Ten turn-of-the-century years spent doing what I know on the Sports Desk at the Guardian and then at the Express helped to uncover the truth about the paradigm shift.
The rapid 1990s expansion of the media saw the power of print—and books, right, Ray?—steadily reduced and the voice and vision branches add to the pre-existing status of Fourth Estate the new role of First Educator. The now ubiquitous ‘zee’ is Exhibit One but more substantial evidence is easy to find.
That steady expansion accelerated the inexorable flow of public literacy towards rampant e-literacy. Or worse. The evidence abounds. On Facebook, on Snapchat and, famously, on US President Donald Trump’s Twitter feed.
On Tuesday afternoon, POTUS was telling reporters on the White House lawn how grateful he was for the role the media had played in his election. Not, of course, the conventional ‘fake news’ media. No, the media that allow him to communicate directly with his base.
“Social media is very important for me because I have a voice,” the president said. “I have social media and I am here.”
“I tweet,” the twit was really saying, “therefore I am.”