Sat, 21 Feb 2004

Educators must help to separate fact from opinion

Simon Marcus Gower, Executive Principal, High/Scope Indonesia School, Jakarta

Amongst all the problems and sufferings that Indonesia has had to overcome in its recent history it may seem trivial to suggest that Indonesia really needs to deal with its gossiping mentality and love of rumor but in actuality gossip and the spreading of rumors have been significant factors in creating problems and prolonging suffering.

Social conflicts have often arisen out of little more than the belief in malicious gossip. Political and economical welfare has been negatively swayed by rumor mongers and religious tensions have provoked and heightened by false beliefs that have no relationship with the actual religious doctrines and faiths in question.

Facts have then been lost in amongst a confusion of hearsay and gossip and people have not been sufficiently well equipped with powers of analysis and critical thought to pursue the facts and not be misled by rumors.

Of course, it is quite natural for people to enter into gossip. Human nature leads most people to enjoy hearing stories about other people but there is a need to exercise powers of critical thought to determine whether what is heard holds any degree of truth. The warning "don't believe all that you read" is widely accepted but perhaps it should be added that you should also not believe all that you hear.

Often, though, it seems that people do believe what they read and/ or hear and this can lead to disasters and unwarranted conflicts. Obviously gossip and rumors can affect the way a person feels about other people and issues of the day but facts have to inform and guide people's feelings so that they do not over react.

Recently there have been numerous examples where people's feelings have overtaken them and irresponsible and irrational actions have resulted. Suspected criminals have been tracked down by frenzied vigilante groups that have acted on nothing more than a rumor. These poor suspects have suffered beatings that have in some instances resulted in death.

Evidently gangs taking the law into their own hands have to be unacceptable but when their crime is added to by the fact that they have acted upon rumor such behavior becomes totally unacceptable. Such vigilante behavior cannot be condoned because it has resulted in the deaths of innocent people. Falsely accused people have been tried, convicted and brutally murdered on the flimsy basis of rumors; a complete and quite sickening miscarriage of justice.

Perhaps not so sickening but equally disturbing is the news that university students have been engaged in inter-departmental brawls; and these, again, have erupted on nothing more than rumors. To have students from the same university, but different schools of learning, attacking each other on grounds of petty and most likely false items of gossip is disturbing indeed.

One would think university students above all others would be able to think with some degree of objectivity to determine the truth and so prevent false and foolhardy response, but evidently some university students are easily lead by their emotions and opinions formed on subjective feelings rather than objective thought.

It is hard to overstate the importance of nurturing the ability to patiently enter into objective thought in the context of our modern world and the direction that the world economy is going. Ours is an age of an enormous quantity of information and those that succeed will be those that are best able to handle this information and use it best for their own purposes. Leaders are increasingly those people that are best able to manipulate information and, in short, be opinion leaders.

This lays a very real challenge at the feet of educators, as it is they more than anyone else that must guide future generations towards skill in sorting through our world of congested information. Education must increasingly be about guiding students towards an appropriate degree of receptivity to the world but simultaneously being able to use discretion and filter what must be dealt with.

Effectively students need to be equipped with thinking skills that allow them to discriminate and analyze material put before them. They should be able to sort the relevant from the irrelevant, the pertinent from the impertinent; the fact from the opinion and the lie from the truth. In being able to handle information in this way they should be able to integrate what they see and hear into their own lives, making it meaningful and placing it as a guide for their own actions.

There is a danger, though, that students will not be guided towards this type of more sophisticated outlook on life, learning and the world. There is a danger that students may too easily passively consume information and so become permissive of other people's manipulation of information.

Students' use of the Internet is a perfect example of this kind of passive and uncritical acceptance of information. If students are left to do their own research from the Internet, they will easily and completely uncritically accept the information they find. Indonesian high school students have been observed quite blindly accepting data and information found on the Internet. They make little or no effort to check or verify what they find and so inevitably they run the risk of accepting "bad information" or even "misinformation".

This can leave students learning wrongly and so be disadvantaged in their education. Educators need to increase students' ability to check and re-check on the quality of information. This demands that students are able to think critically so that they can base their understanding and judgment on solid and sound knowledge.

Baudelaire, the French poet, proposed that "the free man is able to see the reflection of his emotions." The nature of the world today creates a condition in which a free man still needs to see the reflection of his emotions but must also have the ability to not be overwhelmed by his emotions. The manner in which information is manipulated in this information age allows for the manipulation of people's emotions that in turn can lead to undesirable and divisive behavior borne out of gossip and rumor.

The British writer Samuel Johnson saw the main objective of education as creating people "expert in discernment in all things with the power to tell the good from the bad, the genuine from the counterfeit, and to prefer the good and the genuine." This type of objective should be recognized and targeted today and should be, as much as possible, realized in our students -- for their tomorrows.

The opinions expressed above are personal.