Stephen Downes points to a column by Larry Magid on the need for today's young people to develop critical thinking skills that will help them better evaluate what they read online. In it, Magid talks about the fact that in the old days" of mass media we had "trusted" news sources that we could generally rely on for the "truth." With the proliferation of media in the Internet age, this has changed. As a result, he says:
I find articles like this to be pompous in the extreme. They are condescending to kids and dangerous for adults. They lull us into thinking that somehow we have learned to think critically about online content, despite the fact that we were the ones who grew up in an era when news and information from "trusted" sources was not questioned and therefore we never learned the fine art of skepticism. Meanwhile, it's our young people who are growing up in a world where it's clear that you need to question everything, and absorbing the lessons that go with that experience as they grow.
I've been on the receiving end of countless emails from adults who send me the latest urban legend as though it were truth. Never received one from a young person. Most kids I know would check out that urban legend at Snopes before sending it on, while most adults don't even know what Snopes is.
Despite the fact that only 5% of sexual abuse victims are abused by a stranger, it's the adults who are the frantic victims of "stranger danger" thinking, fueled by Internet and TV stories that make it sound like MySpace is more dangerous than your "trusted" neighbor.
It's kids who recognize that you can Photoshop a picture to look like "truth," in part because they've actually done it themselves. They also know that you can do a fake Facebook page, write a false Wikipedia entry or say whatever you want in a blog post--again, because they've done these things or seen them done by someone else.
If anyone needs training in critical thinking on the Internet, it's the adults who are still living in a world where media is something they consume unquestioningly because they've never had the experience of making it themselves. It's the adults who were raised on "authorities" and "experts," in a monocultural world where many subcultures remained hidden from view and therefore assumptions about "truth" and "fact" were not questioned.
Our young people, on the other hand, are growing up in a world that's more transparent, where the web of links that we're developing helps them find the more complicated "truths" that underlie what we've always seen as "fact." Young people are the ones who see that transparency is the new objectivity because they have grown up Googling their way to source documents and "smoking guns." They relish disproving and questioning facts, like young people always have, but for once, they actually have tools at their finger tips that allow them to do it easily and at will.
I'm not saying that youth don't need to be critical thinkers or that there aren't areas where they could further develop their skills. What I am saying, though, is that I'm not sure that it's their lack of critical thinking that's the issue. As they say on airplanes, put on your own oxygen mask before helping the person next to you. I think that before we start preaching to kids that they need to develop their critical thinking, we need to take a good hard look in the mirror at ourselves.