The race between education and catastrophe: Teachers need to help their students acquire the disposition to resist tribalism

by Andy Zucker

English author H.G. Wells (1866-1946) was, at times, a science fiction writer and a futurist. He foresaw the development of aircraft, tanks, space travel, atom bombs, and even something like the world wide web, which he called the world brain.

Just over a century ago Wells wrote, “Human history becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe.” He believed people should “learn the truth and spread it as far and wide as our circumstances allow. For truth is the greatest weapon we have.”

There is much to like about those words. Certainly, I understand the compelling reasons to make a sound education available to people everywhere, regardless of their income, race, color, gender, or nationality. In these troubled times, I also believe a quality education should include media literacy education, which is why I am a board member at Media Literacy Now.

Nonetheless, humanity seems to be learning the hard way that education is not the panacea that Wells hoped it would be. According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the United States is among the top ten most highly educated nations in the world. Yet the U.S. was the only one of 196 signatories that withdrew from the Paris climate agreement, as announced by former President Trump in 2017. Soon after, in 2019, Pew Research Center found that “Americans are less likely to be concerned about climate change” than citizens in many other nations.

Moreover, dozens of examples can be found of apparently well-educated people who pass along misinformation, believe in conspiracy theories, or are ignorant about vitally important matters. Even Nobel Prize winners affiliated with Ivy League institutions can make horrible mistakes, such as when James Watson, a co-discoverer of the double helix structure of DNA, asserted a few years ago that Black people are less intelligent than white people because of their genetic makeup. (He was forced to retire as a result.) As another example, Robert F. Kennedy Jr., also highly educated, manages to be at once a progressive environmentalist and an anti-vaccine advocate who believes vaccines cause autism, despite an overwhelming scientific consensus to the contrary.

Some of the reasons why H.G. Wells was overly optimistic about the power of education to stave off catastrophe can be found in human tendencies called tribalism and authoritarianism. Although truth may be our greatest weapon, not everyone accepts the truth.

Tribalism is the tendency of people to believe what their preferred group or community believes, regardless of what experts might think. In other words, beliefs and attitudes are contagious. For example, Professor Dan M. Kahan at Yale, and his colleagues, found in a 2012 study that people’s cultural world views (sometimes called cultural polarization) are a better predictor of their beliefs about climate change than their scientific literacy or technical reasoning capacity. Being able to recite the facts is not enough.

And authoritarians, such as dictators, “don’t just want to control the government, the economy and the military. They want to control the truth,” says Rebecca Solnit in a recent New York Times op-ed column. If someone can persuade people to abandon facts and critical thinking, they will have “a standing army awaiting their next command.”

Along these lines, it is shocking that Texas passed a law in 2021 making it illegal to teach students it was racist for the 1788 American Constitution to deny Black people the right to vote and counted slaves as three-fifths of a person. According to Texas, racism has never been an “authentic founding principle” of the United States, whose principles include “liberty and equality.” Are you kidding?

It is not easy for advocates of media literacy education to counter such unpleasant components of human nature as tribalism and authoritarianism. To do so, we need to focus attention on dispositions rather than skills and knowledge alone.

Fact-checking and understanding claims found in media requires skills and knowledge, to be sure. For example, a “reverse image search” may show that a photo used to bolster a false claim, like a supposed shark attack off the coast of Maine, is actually an older image from a different source entirely. But we cannot lose sight of the fact that media literacy begins with people wanting to check facts and assumptions.

Most people, most of the time, do not want to be fooled. But there are circumstances under which almost anyone can slip up and accept misinformation. Teachers need to help their students acquire the disposition to resist that tendency. As one wonderful bumper sticker says, “Don’t believe everything you think.” Media literacy educators, and others, need to teach that difficult idea to more young people.

Andy Zucker, Ed.D., a member of Media Literacy Now’s Board, has experience in education as a federal program evaluator, researcher, book author, and STEM teacher. He and colleagues recently developed a free one-week unit for grades 6-12 called Resisting Scientific Misinformation, available here.


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