Writing professor Peter Wayne Moe explains the need for college writing courses to promote information literacy.
Back in December, President-elect Donald Trump declared he’d achieved “a massive landslide victory.” Fact checkers at The Associated Press, PolitiFact, CNN and others were quick to point out his problematic use of “landslide.” NPR’s Arnie Seipel’s research showed that President Trump’s margin of victory in the electoral college places him 46th in the 58 presidential elections, well behind Ronald Reagan’s 489 electoral votes in 1980 and his 525 electoral votes in 1984. Never mind that Hillary Clinton led the popular vote by 2.8 million. Hardly a landslide, let alone a massive one.
Although he’s far from the only politician to stretch the truth, Trump’s disregard for facts showed up again in his claims regarding the size of his inauguration crowds and with his administration’s groundless claims of voter fraud.
As a teacher of writing, all this bothers me greatly. If facts don’t count for anything, then how is public discourse possible? How do I teach my students to write when it’s becoming increasingly difficult to make a claim grounded in fact? What’s a writing teacher to do?
First, our writing classrooms need to make information literacy a cornerstone of the curriculum. Last November, researchers at Stanford released a report showing that 80 percent of middle-school students cannot distinguish between real and fake news and are clueless as to what “sponsored content” means on a news website.
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This is a problem of information literacy, and it reaches beyond just the middle school. Our students — at all levels — need to learn to write and read well. They need to learn how to gather reliable sources, how to evaluate those sources, how to make use of those sources in fair, ethical and generous yet critical ways. There’s a push from news outlets to teach the public these skills, and many schools are now including information literacy in their curriculum.
The college writing course needs to be at the forefront of such teaching, and the library needs to have a role, too. Students need to learn the difference between Google and a library database, between BuzzFeed and Politico, between a blog and fact-checked reporting. Whatever our students are reading, we must couch that reading within larger discussions of information literacy.
We must also redeem rhetoric. Writing professor Victor Villanueva defines rhetoric as “the conscious use of language” and all of us — teachers and students, citizens and politicians — need to become more conscious of how we use language. Such awareness comes through the study of rhetoric, the art of persuasion. John Locke called rhetoric “that powerful instrument of error and deceit” and, judging from this past election, he’s right. But there’s more to rhetoric than manipulation. Aristotle said the study of rhetoric is useful for four reasons.
First, the public needs to know how an argument works. Only then they can respond to faulty claims so that truth can prevail.
Second, Aristotle knows that “there are people whom one cannot instruct.” Rhetoric gives the ability to reach these people. If students are to have any hope of changing public policy, of persuading others who so vehemently and ignorantly disagree, they need more resources at their disposal than facts alone — because, as we’ve seen this past year, facts don’t always work.
Third, training in rhetoric enables students to more fully understand the issues at hand. To make a smart and sound argument, the student must know how opGuponents will likely be making theirs; rhetoric allows for a deeper knowledge of what’s going on.
And fourth, Aristotle says rhetoric is vital because a person needs to be able to “defend himself with speech and reason.” I cannot help but read that as a call to arms, as Aristotle giving his students the tools they need to enter into public discussions, fraught as they are. Aristotle finishes with this: a person “can confer the greatest of benefits by a right use of these [rhetorical arts], and inflict the greatest of injuries by using them wrongly.”
We regularly see plenty of instances of the misuse of rhetoric. It’s imperative that we teach our students to respond with thoughtful, careful and nuanced reading and writing that engages fully and substantively the issues at hand. When facts don’t matter, information literacy and rhetoric do all the more.