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Post-truth, post-truth, pants on fire

As a child I loved the idea of x-ray vision and imagined being able to see into cupboards and cases. There is something beautiful and intriguing about the ability to think of things that have never been and, in some cases, never could be, to enter imagined worlds of the past and the possible. Painting and dancing, writing and acting, speaking and singing all have the potential to uplift us, to encourage the best in us and to make us think, but there is a world of difference that separates using creativity to inspire, solve problems, or highlight beauty in the world, from the shallow, sad deceptions used to trick and mislead others, that have recently affected so many societies and cultures. 

While we have been working to build a positive future for children at Alma in our new site, there are times when I have been angry, frustrated and occasionally scared by the cynical manipulation of emotions and feeling that have played out in a variety of situations around the world. This has been an aspect of discourse not just in the UK and America, but in the Middle East, Asia and beyond, and one of thing I’ve come to loath in these situations is the term ‘post-truth’. This phrase, which has been increasingly used, seems to give a positive spin to deception; in essence it offers a post-modern ‘nod-and-a-wink’ to something that most people agree is damaging and that concerns me as an educator.

Children are good at understanding the difference between truth and lies. In fact large elements of traditional socialisation help children to understand that people can dissemble and deceive. Many children in England learn the adage ‘liar, liar, pants on fire’ as a mechanism to identify lying and publically acknowledge that this is wrong, whilst various traditional stories play through the ways in which humans can lie to each other, as well as exploring the consequences of lies.

Young people are growing up in environments in which the truth is often blurred and as society evolves education needs to adapt to the new realities created by changes in culture and technology that affect us all. The use of packaging to bamboozle us into thinking that products are more valuable or elusive than they actually are is something schools have become increasingly overt in teaching children to recognise and understand, but post truth deceptions are buried under layers of subterfuge and not all lies are obvious. Ian Gilbert, author of ‘Why Do I Need a Teacher When I’ve got Google’, describes the challenge in terms of knowledge.  The role of the 21st century teacher, Gilbert argues, is to help young people find knowledge and ‘to know what to do with it when they get it, to know 'good' knowledge from 'bad' knowledge… to be creative with it… to know which bits to use and when and how to use them’.

Our children need opportunities to grapple with truth and lies, to see the difference between exaggeration and deception, as well as to understand how to respond to lies when they come across them. In a world where social media myths are all too quickly created, where online providers are often more interested in click rates than confirmation, where power can be gained through deception, then, as educators and as parents, we have a duty to help children develop well-calibrated internal lie detectors, as well as strong moral compasses. To grow up securely in a post-truth world, children need the intellectual x-ray vision to see that post-truths are just well-dressed lies. As educators and parents, helping them to grapple with this is part of our challenge and one we should take seriously.

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