Telling Truth from Fiction


We frequently express a concern that children should be taught to think critically. During his junior year in college Martin Luther King Jr. wrote “ Education must enable one to sift and weigh evidence, to discern the true from the false, the real from the unreal, and the facts from the fiction.”  This was critical, King said, if students were to be saved “from the morass of propaganda.” Sixty-six years later, these concerns remain. Advising the graduates of Pitzer College, in June 2013, former presidential speechwriter Jon Lovett noted, more pungently than King:

One of the greatest threats we face is, simply put, bullshit. We are drowning in it. We are drowning in partisan rhetoric that is just true enough not to be a lie; in industry-sponsored research; in social media's imitation of human connection; …. It infects every facet of public life, corrupting our discourse, … lowering our standards for the truth.

At the core of our relentless focus on a coherent, sequenced curriculum that builds children’s background knowledge is our desire to teach kids to think critically.  To be able to marshal facts and advocate for themselves but also to detect BS and call it when they see it. Senator Daniel Patrick Moynahan (an alum of Benjamin Franklin High School in East Harlem) famously wrote "Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts."

Academic research - ably summarized by ICS friend and senior advisor Dan Willingham - shows that “factual knowledge enhances cognitive processes like problem solving and reasoning. The richer the knowledge base, the more smoothly and effectively these cognitive processes operate.”

But developing our children’s knowledge base is not our end goal. Yes, they need to sort fact from fiction, but many issues are not neatly divisible into true and false. In 1936 F Scott Fitzgerald wrote that

the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function. One should, for example, be able to see that things are hopeless and yet be determined to make them otherwise. 

So by building their background knowledge, ICS develops children's sense of discernment. When we teach them to calculate the average rate of satisfaction with a product, we want them to grasp that this means half of the people had a better experience, and half suffered a worse one.  When we discuss that proof of the existence of an omnipotent and omniscient creator is limited, we want them to also understand that for many people in the world, and even in their classroom, God is very real. And we want them to appreciate that in the myth of Pandora, after all the evils escaped her jar, hope still remained.

New York-based graphic artist Barbara Kruger summed up the goals of an ICS education even more pithily. Sadly, she will not let us put it on wall in our school, but it inspires us every day.