The textbook as unreliable narrator

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Washington Post

NBC told this blog today that it would investigate its handling of a piece on the “Today” show that ham-handedly abridged the conversation between George Zimmerman and a dispatcher in the moments before the death of Trayvon Martin. A statement from NBC:

“We have launched an internal investigation into the editorial process surrounding this particular story.”

Great news right there. As exposed by Fox News and media watchdog site NewsBusters, the “Today” segment took this approach to a key part of the dispatcher call:

Zimmerman: This guy looks like he’s up to no good. He looks black.

Here’s how the actual conversation went down:

Zimmerman: This guy looks like he’s up to no good. Or he’s on drugs or something. It’s raining and he’s just walking around, looking about.
Dispatcher: OK, and this guy — is he black, white or Hispanic?
Zimmerman: He looks black.

The difference between what “Today” put on its air and the actual tape? Complete: In the “Today” version, Zimmerman volunteered that this person “looks black,” a sequence of events that would more readily paint Zimmerman as a racial profiler. In reality’s version, Zimmerman simply answered a question about the race of the person whom he was reporting to the police. Nothing prejudicial at all in responding to such an inquiry.

-Washington Post

These two things came my way at about the same time. I don’t want to overstate things based on this one example but it does exemplify one argument I keep having with people. The “vetted” world comes with its own inaccuracies and biases yet we don’t seem to approach this content in that way. Textbooks, NBC’s media library, statements from members of our government, the content of library databases we provide students etc. are all things that ought to be looked at with the same critical eye we encourage for other less “trustworthy” sources of information.1

I wonder to what extent we’d have a more interesting and involved classroom if we introduced the idea of the textbook as an unreliable narrator. It’d be interesting to see what students would consider worth proving vs what they’d just accept. There’s a lot you could play with there. It’d certainly be a fun book to write.


1 Suspect everyone and follow the money might be a good rule of thumb.

Comments on this post

  1. Ben said on April 10, 2012 at 11:16 am

    To paraphrase Pat Boone “never trust anyone over 30”, and that includes corporations.

    I always told my students not to simply accept what was handed them, make sure they understand why the “truth” is the truth.

    • Tom said on April 10, 2012 at 11:32 am

      A certain kind of trust needs to occur between teachers, students, and content but I am left unsure how much. I think lots of people say don’t trust stuff but the whole structure of school is based around compliance and trust- explicitly and implicitly.

      Once upon a time when I taught students, I would intentionally throw falsehoods of varying degrees into conversations to provoke reaction and in an attempt to prohibit blind acceptance of the things I said. Ironically, I think to do that right your students have to trust you at a very basic level. I certainly botched it quite a bit but felt it was worth the effort. I don’t know if that’s worth thinking about on a larger scale or not. I found it valuable.

      • Ben said on April 10, 2012 at 11:39 am

        All things in moderation.

        A strong relationship would be key, followed by a clear understanding that you’re going to be feeding them misinformation perhaps before actually doing it on a regular basis. I oscillate on whether this would be a sound regular practice as I wouldn’t want to make my students to always be “on alert” for bogus content. Perhaps as a smaller exercise from time to time.

        • Tom said on April 10, 2012 at 1:00 pm

          I’ll play the devil here- ignoring that schools are constrained by centuries of blah blah blah etc. etc.

          Why would you not want your students continually on the alert for bad information? I know it might slow things down but it would also create a very different kind of listening and analysis. I don’t want my own children to shut off this kind of analysis ever. I think that’s part of the reason students don’t ask questions in school.

          My own children challenge me on things I say fairly regularly and while it can be annoying at times, I find the benefits far outweigh the hassle. Trust but verify. I’d like that concept integrated into school. I don’t know if you need to inject uncertainties into the conversation to do it but that would be the opposite of what we currently do.

          Maybe there’s an analysis about the source which leads to a lower level of defenses (something like a trusted site in a browser) but it’s based on a rigorous pre-analysis and a continuous low level challenge of subsequent information.

          What would happen if a teacher only argued against student answers to a series of particular questions regardless of the position of the student?

  2. Ben said on April 10, 2012 at 1:11 pm

    Thanks for playing the devil, Tom, although I’m sure the actual guy doesn’t have horns that long 🙂

    When it comes down to it, I’m a middle of the road kind of guy. It doesn’t matter how far I push something, or how conservative I can be on certain issues, I seem to eventually gravitate towards the middle, seeking a balanced approach to just about everything (educational theory, life, the universe, and everything). That having been said, I’m perfectly willing to take just about any position to help students practice argument, dialogue, and measured skepticism.

    I wonder to what extent we’d have a more interesting and involved classroom if we introduced the idea of the textbook as an unreliable narrator.

    To answer your question about to what extent we’d have a more interesting classroom if we introduced the idea we’re discussing, I think no more or less interesting than spending time with any of the other growing needs in the classroom (digital literacy, storyteling skills, collaboration, introspection, deduction, etc.). Although I could see how this could easily to be tied to many of those skills.

    • Tom said on April 10, 2012 at 1:37 pm

      I see a key difference at least in terms of the examples you mention (realizing they’re probably fairly random). The examples are essentially skill pieces that don’t require a fundamental rethinking of any foundational elements inherent in the understanding of school.

      I see changing the belief that teachers and books are where you go to get a purified (virtually unimpeachable) truth to be a fundamental structural change in how people understand education and the teacher/student role. I’m not sure it’d result in more interest, as I indicated previously, but I think it’d be a much more dramatic and fundamental shift.

  3. Mike said on April 11, 2012 at 10:05 am

    That’s been my argument FOR using Wikipedia with teachers. More often than not, about 98% of the time I’m in a classroom, teachers tell kids not to use Wikipedia because it’s not reliable, and then send them off on the Internet like Little Red Riding Hood instead of warning students that everything they come across is an unreliable narrator. I like the term. Instead of teaching students how to question what they read, they just tell them to avoid a bogeyman. Drives me crazy. Especially since, most students go to Wikipedia with the understanding that it is an unreliable narrator.

  4. mnkilmer said on April 11, 2012 at 2:31 pm

    The best thing about using wikipedia is that it is fairly transparent — the history of revision and discussion page shows how the page came to be and why. Textbooks provide no such transparency. Teachers can and should: we should be able to explain to students how we come to claim expertise and be self-critical of our authoritative stance.

    And while you recommend that we ‘follow the money,’ I would add that cultural context always matters and needs to be examined.

    For the record, I haven’t used a textbook in years, in either English or social studies courses. There are enough primary sources readily available, and inconsistencies between sources makes for interesting questions of historiography.

    • Mike said on April 12, 2012 at 10:23 am

      The feedback I get from teachers, is that if students aren’t reading a real textbook, then they aren’t being prepared for college which is all textbook driven. Sometimes, I feel like college is the biggest hurdle to good education in K – 12.

  5. Brody Lab said on April 15, 2012 at 5:23 pm

    Only at a high school level would I consider this concept and even then it would be difficult for me to teach my students a history book filled with uncertainty. I believe that students will speculate on their own but it our job to present information as fact first.

    • Tom said on April 21, 2012 at 10:43 am

      I’m not sure if this is true. I guess that’s my point. I don’t know if a teacher’s job should be to present facts or to ask the right questions to get students to start process things to determine fact. It seems like the idea of “authenticated” knowledge which shouldn’t be judged is a bad idea to me. I see teachers say factually incorrect things and biased things frequently. They tend to be accepted blindly because we cultivate that kind of acceptance. I’m not sure how you move away from that but I think it needs to happen.

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