Have You Heard About Pluto?

Patrick O’Brien, Director of Civic Engagement at Frostburg State University

February 13, 2018

It’s messed up, right! Like most of you, I grew up in a solar system with nine planets and I want to keep it that way. I don’t care what 424 astronomers decided at an annual meeting of the International Astronomical Union. Pluto is a planet... and this is a problem! Not Pluto, but this inherent way of thinking. It is no surprise that people are resistant to change, or have a need to be accepted by the group. In a Psychology Today article, Dr. Fredric Neuman explains, “we are the sort of creatures that do not learn new things easily, if they contradict what we think we already know. We hear and read selectively. That is the way things are. It is so important for us to maintain our long-held perspective on ourselves and on the world, that we are more likely to martyr ourselves for our beliefs than admit to ourselves, and to others, that we may be wrong.” On some level, we are all guilty of ignoring facts to support our long standing beliefs, even on the smallest scale. However, today, in a world of Fake News, Alternative Facts, Social Media, and Echo Chambers, this natural human behavior has created a higher-level problem for our students and in turn, us as educators.

In high school, and in their undergraduate work, as students begin to form their own perspective on so many issues and the world as a whole, they have a much higher potential to be misled from facts and then have these concepts reinforced. Today, no matter what you believe in, whether it be climate change, a flat earth, ghosts, or bigfoot, you can search the web and find a group of people that believe in the same thing, and reinforce the belief despite possible facts; leading each student to have their own version of the same reality. Add to this the constant message we have given youth to stand up for what you believe in, and we quickly have a problem: students that will dig their heals in and fight like hell for beliefs based potentially in mistruths, misinformation, and propaganda.

We, as educators, are then tasked to engage this new group of students through programs and events to get them to critically think about the intersection of politics, civic engagement, society and to engage students in conversation with people with differing ideas. But how can this be done effectively? How can two students have a fruitful debate over a topic when their arguments are based in different realities? How do we break through walls built on alternative facts and reinforced by Fake News and conspiracy theories?

While we have not found the “silver bullet” for this yet, here at Frostburg State University we have been fighting the good fight. The office of Civic Engagement has collaborated with the J. Glenn Beall Institute for Public Affairs to host ongoing conversations about the community based in the concepts of local, state, and federal government. My colleague and Director of the Institute moderates the conversation, and always begins with a simple ground rule: “It is OK to disagree without being disagreeable.”  Students are then given the floor to bring up whatever topics are important to them within the broader topic of the meeting. This format has brought up some very tough and, at times, sensitive topics. However, the overlying concept of not being disagreeable, that you cannot just be against something without being for something else, has led to engaging and respectful conversations between our students. If a student makes a claim that is not true, or was gathered from an unreliable source, other students take the time to explain why it is false, what their sources are, and not in a demeaning way. In doing so, by following the process, the students have a truly safe space to talk about their concerns within the local and global community. But how do we go further? How do we translate this model that encompasses 100 students and expand it through the campus in order to overshadow the misinformation and blind arguments on social media. Can we really create an atmosphere or campus culture where dialogue is sought after and handled in a respectful way? Only time (and assessment) will tell. 




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