Opinion
School Climate & Safety Letter to the Editor

Subjective Motivations Affect Critical-Reading Techniques

February 07, 2017 1 min read

To the Editor:

I get that students can’t “google their way to the truth” (“What Students Don’t Know About Fact-Checking,” Nov. 2, 2016).

I get that they’re putting blind trust into search engines, that they need to sleuth out untrustworthy news, that our future as a democracy is on the line—all of which Sam Wineburg and Sarah McGrew point out in their Commentary. I get that emulating professional fact-checkers is an admirable start.

What I don’t get is why the authors’ solution—to teach critical-reading skills—fails to consider the psychological drive underpinning our tendency to avoid questioning the voices we want to hear.

Yes, even half of the Stanford University students that the authors tested fell for the study’s dupe; they accepted a hate group on the basis of its online presentation as a professional pediatrics association. The authors point to the incredible idea—incredible idea!—that this ignorance exists among students attending our nation’s most selective institution. America’s brightest!

Clearly, if our best students fall prey, more than intellect is at play here.

The humanistic psychoanalyst Erich Fromm’s classic on the roots of Nazism, Escape From Freedom, explains why humans, no matter how smart, turn to the acceptance of false authority in moments of social and existential insecurity: “What the psychological analysis of doctrines can show is the subjective motivations which make a person aware of certain problems and make him seek for answers in certain directions. Any kind of thought, true or false, ... is motivated by the subjective needs and interests of the person who is thinking. It happens that some interests are furthered by finding the truth, others by destroying it.”

Critical-reading techniques are not enough to engender critical thinking. Every student must learn to reflect on subjective motivations. Every student must find the security to have his or her assumptions challenged before lessons in fact-checking will work.

The letter writer formerly taught in the humanities in Oakland, Calif.

Rei Jackler

Boston, Mass.

A version of this article appeared in the February 08, 2017 edition of Education Week as Subjective Motivations Affect Critical-Reading Techniques

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