The Great Media-Disciplines Divide

Posting at The South Lawn, Robert Reese, a PhD student in sociology at Duke University, confronts the marginalized role of the disciplines in the popular media:

Like sports, nearly everyone has an opinion on race, but unlike sports, the training of race scholars is often meaningless in the public’s eye. Our knowledge is often attributed to mere opinion rather than theories and facts drawn from years of our own research and untold amounts of meticulous consumption of the work of our predecessors and contemporaries.  We’re taught to take a look at information from all sides and trained to critique data and arguments. But when it’s time to talk about race, our phones simply don’t ring enough and our voices don’t mean enough.

Recently, I have posted about my own experience with sharing my expertise and the research base on sentence diagramming, prompting one comment on Facebook characterizing my input as a “viewpoint.”

In 1947, English teacher and scholar Lou LaBrant acknowledged “the considerable gap between the research currently available and the utilization of that research in school programs and methods.”

Taken together, then, we have a powerful historical and current problem that can be traced to the great media-discipline divide—a “gap,” as LaBrant called it, between the knowledge base of the disciplines and the so-called real worlds of popular media, public opinion, and day-to-day practice in fields such as education.

As I have examined in my call for a critical free press and my open letter to journalists, my primary field of education is trapped in that divide, essentially crippled because of that divide. Thus, Reese’s apt point about race scholars being “meaningless in the public’s eye” captures the parallel pattern found in education—a pattern in which media scrutiny, public opinion, and political leadership are all driven by an adolescent perspective that essentially acts as if the field of education does not exist and then as a result creates conditions (social realities and education policy) within which universal public education cannot be successful.

What do I mean by “adolescent perspective”?

Let me start with my primary and longest (so far) career—teaching high school English for almost two decades in rural South Carolina.

I must confess that i genuinely and deeply adore young people: babies, children, teenagers, and young adults. I have a very special place in my heart as a teacher for high school sophomores, in fact.

But it is the exact same quality found in teens that makes them wonderful and then nearly insufferable. Teens respond to the world with their hearts and souls first, responses completely disconnected from their still-developing brains and their nearly absent ability to be rational.

From second to second, teens appear to be trapped in a sort of bi-polar hell: magically happy to the point of levitation or mortally wounded by something otherwise innocuous.

That bi-polar hell is often reinforced by a belief that she/he has discovered something, thought of something, or is witnessing something that has never yet existed in the universe (there was “O, my, god Prince!” as if Jimi Hendrix and Little Richard had never walked the planet) as well as a nearly paralyzing obsession with fairness.

While teaching adolescents (or children, or young adults) can be incredibly satisfying and invigorating because of their passion, because so much of the world is new to them, Howard Gardner, for example, has detailed well, I think, the foundational divide that occurs between young students and their understanding the disciplines—and how that continues into adulthood:

An expert is a person who comes to understand the world differently. But that is very, very difficult to do and I’m going to argue today that it’s not done very often. …

Later on, I am going to give you evidence that no matter where you look in the curriculum, you will find students who do not understand: physics, mathematics, biology, literature, art. It is ubiquitous.

I witness daily that “ubiquitous”: The powerful and crippling divide between the media, the public, politicians, and students, and the disciplines, or as Gardner states, “experts.”

That divide I have here identified as an adolescent perspective—not to be condescending or harsh (because again I love adolescents), but to highlight the moves that journalists fall prey to in their honorable quest to mediate knowledge for the public, their practice constrained by the journalistic norm of “presenting both sides” and remaining “neutral.”

So I want to end with some friendly tips for the media, especially for education journalists:

  • If you think some issue, practice, or debate in education (or any discipline) is new, take a deep breath and then assume that it is not (likely, it is not). Immediately seek out an expert in the discipline, one that has expertise in the history of the field, and start from there. (Just as a related note: Many rushed to glorify Howard Gardner when he became “hot” for multiple intelligences. In my doctoral program—deeply steeped in the history of education—we were quickly disabused of believing that ideas was “new” because similar ground had been covered many decades before Gardner.)
  • If you think a major issue or practice doesn’t already have a rich and complex research base—and thus it is you who shall examine it for the field—take a deep breath and then realize that (i) the discipline surely has a research base and (ii) idealizing the outsider viewpoint is the most offensive thing you can express to those in a discipline who have spent their lives considering that field carefully. (Note: I am primarily in the field of education, but I taught journalism for 13 years and have been a professional writer, including journalism, for most of my adult life. I confess that I do not have formal training in journalism, but I certainly have credible expertise in that field, enough so to make the claims I do here.)
  • And finally, if you insist on maintaining a commitment to “presenting both sides,” you are guaranteed to misrepresent the disciplines (see, for example, my discussion of sentence diagramming) and you have failed to learn from the disciplines since disciplinary stances are grounded in the body of research, honoring clear and convincing evidence. To present Side X equally with Side Y is to suggest the two sides are equal in credibility and weight (see the Oliver Rule); few issues have such simplistic balance. The disciplines honor positions with the most credibility and weight, driven by evidence (although there is nuance among the disciplines in issues such as what counts as evidence, etc.).

Here, I think, are three simple guidelines for helping close the divide between the media and the disciplines, and thus, between the public and the disciplines—an essential step to implementing policy driven by knowledge bases and not the irrational adolescent perspective that govern our popular and political worlds today.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s