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Media musings: I tweet, therefore I am? Facts, truth and reader education

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.”

Photo: Facts matter (by The Climate Reality Project on Unsplash)

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.

Photo: Head filled with ‘facts’ (by meo from Pexels)

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.”

Photo: Man holding burning newspaper (by David Gomes from Pexels)

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?

Photo: Students at the Sangre Grande Hindu School focus on their Trinidad Guardian SEA practice test.
(Courtesy bpartofit)

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.

Photo: Teacher at whiteboard.

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.

Photo: US President Donald Trump speaks during a campaign rally at Drake University on 30 January 2020, in Des Moines, Iowa.
(Copyright AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

“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.”

About Earl Best

Earl Best
Earl Best taught cricket, French, football and Spanish at QRC for many years and has written consistently for the Tapia and the Trinidad and Tobago Review since the 1970's. He is also a former sports editor at the Trinidad Guardian and the Trinidad Express and is now a senior lecturer in Journalism at COSTAATT.

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2 comments

  1. Moreena Mohammed-Campey

    I have enjoyed reading your commentary on the role that real education plays in our lives; and I know too, many Trinidadians who feel they’ve got’ there’ because their heads are filled with facts. and many people also revere them because of how many degrees they have ammassed in their short lives! But these are the very people who ‘qualify’ to be our representatives poliltically and govern us! Maybe one day there would be a requirement of a degree in’ how to be a human being and work with real integrity towards helping others’ Your piece here, makes me feel so disadvantaged in writing, that I really wish I could be one of your students in Journalism at COSTATT. This is written out of pure envy! Thank you for it.

    • Earl Best

      “Your piece here makes me feel so disadvantaged in writing that I really wish I could be one of your students in Journalism at COSTAATT.”
      I’ll take the compliment but I suspect that you would have a change of heart if you were able to talk to most of my Journalism students at COSTAATT.