This feature was first published in Journeys Winter 2018.
This article was written by high school psychologist and personal academic counselor, Dr. Jeff Devens.
Oxford's International Dictionary declared "post- truth" its 2016 word of the year. This term is defined as "relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion or personal belief." Rather than addressing complex social, political, and moral issues utilizing reason and logic- enlightenment principles, an appeal to "truth" is made with emotional fervor, fear, groupthink, and in some cases violence. How did we arrive at this inflection point?
To understand the origins of post-truth, one needs to understand postmodernism. Postmodernism as a philosophical movement is characterized with deep skepticism, subjectivism or relativism; a general suspicion of reason; and an acute sensitivity to the role of ideology in asserting and maintaining political, economic, and social power.
Postmodernism rejects rationalism and empiricism, valuing autonomy, personal preference, and subjective emotional experiences in determining what is true. In effect, there is no truth, only competing perspectives. Each person must decide what is true for themselves. All viewpoints are equally valid and simultaneously equally invalid depending on one's perspective.
In a general sense, postmodernism rejects many, if not most, of the cultural, political, scientific, and economic principles upon which life in the West (i.e., Europe, United States) has been based for the past 300 years.
PARENTING IN A POSTMODERN WORLD
Historically, educational institutions attempted to foster higher order thinking by placing an emphasis on critical thinking skills and teaching these skills explicitly. However, in recent years this path of truth-seeking has been supplanted among an increasing number of academic institutions. Emotions, preferences, and subjective experiences are becoming the barometer by which truth is measured. Further, differences in perspectives are not treated with empirical inquiry. Instead, they are countered with emotional objections (i.e., micro-aggressions, triggered). Emotions void of reasoning and rational judgment, can lead kids and adults to dangerous outcomes.
In the writing of this article, I've found myself reflecting on the cost of postmodern principles in practice. Many of the adolescents we work with are driven by emotions, and this is as it should be developmentally. The prefrontal cortex doesn't fully develop until the mid-late 20's, while the part of the brain associated with emotions, the limbic system, specifically the amygdala, is present at birth.
Kids and teens are emotionally driven. The challenge is helping them shift their thinking from emotional to cognitive. It is the idea that thought + emotions = a context for learning and understanding.
What is different among some of today's adolescents? A heightened-anxious emotional nature in which arguments, reasoning, and perspectives are put forth seemingly void of rational thought and with much emotional fervor. Contesting differences by attempting to review the "facts" is viewed as bias, bigoted, hateful, and in some cases deemed detrimental to one's safety. Such feelings based thinking must be examined.
If our kids are to become critical thinkers, we must equip them with critical thinking skills, these include: identifying relevant information from primary and secondary sources, constructing and recognizing valid deductive arguments which are evidence-based, testing hypotheses when possible, developing reasoning skills, recognizing common fallacies, and distinguishing between evidence and interpretation of evidence.
Postmodernism rejects these concepts, supplanting them with perspective, preference, personal opinion (i.e., true for you, not for me), and victim narratives. Parenting with principles that run counterculture to postmodernism will come at a cost. Conventions will be challenged by culture, community, and even family.
Parents, what are those "truth" principles you value? How are you communicating with children your rationale, reasoning, and understanding as to why you hold those beliefs to be true? Below are some conversation starters for helping children/ teens develop a broader understanding of how you and they are processing their thinking.
1. ASK, "WHY, HOW, WHAT" QUESTIONS
Why do you think it's important for societies/ cultures/people to be kind to one another? How do you think countries/communities/individuals demonstrate or express kindness? What do you think would be the outcome(s) if countries/cultures/ people were able to nd common agreements on humanitarian issues? The term "kindness" could be supplemented with any number of terms and similar questions posed. The goal is to help kids think through responses and implications of actions.
2. POSE A QUESTION OF THE DAY
If you were the prime minister of Singapore (or your "home" country) what three things would you change and why? Choose questions that draw on higher order thinking (i.e., analysis, synthesis, evaluation) skills.
3. POSE A DILEMMA OF THE WEEK
As part of a dinner discussion, allow each family member to offer his/her thoughts, followed with questions from others at the table, as to why they hold these perspectives. What about their arguments can be substantiated with empirical adequacy, logical consistency, and personal relevance?
For example, think of a topic in culture, society, government or the media that is both age-appropriate and controversial (i.e., should a person be allowed to say whatever he/she wants? Do grades matter? etc.). Allow each person time to discuss the merits of their perspective and how and why they arrived at their conclusions.
4. DEALING WITH INTELLECTUAL AND EMOTIONAL IMPASSES
Describe a situation in which you and another individual arrived at different conclusions regarding a particular topic (i.e., political, social, moral, etc.). How did/do you deal with the tension of agreeing not to agree? How did you handle the corresponding emotional outworking of differences? How did this affect your relationship going forward?
Having worked at Singapore American School for the past 17 years I continue to ask myself, "...are we not afraid to follow truth wherever it may lead, nor tolerate any error so long as reason is left free to combat it?" Jefferson's words, written some 200 years ago, still have a place in education settings, including SAS.
Our core values of compassion, honesty, fairness, responsibility, and respect must guide our teaching, counseling, and administrative practices, but these must be bolstered with a willingness for dialogue, debate, and discussion in the pursuit of truth.
Throughout the past two years, I have had conversations with colleagues, parents, and students discussing controversial topics ranging from election results, gender issues, compelled speech, safe-spaces, microaggressions, trigger warnings, economics, faith, to cultural/parental practices. In each of these conversations, I'm cognizant I too hold preferences and presuppositions which need to be examined.
I remain optimistic SAS will continue to be a school that embodies this spirit of inquiry.
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