I was recently asked to speak to Ryan Biederman’s current events class at Raceland Middle School. I was given a few days’ notice of course, and during that time I had ample opportunity to mull over what I was going to say to a room full of bright young people. 

There was the option I suppose of simply giving the class a dry and static explanation of things such as “What is media?” and “How do you determine accuracy?” and the obvious “How do current events affect your daily life?” Good and necessary things to be sure, but I doubted that Mr. Biederman had invited me to simply recite answers from a book.

The answer to what I was going to say, as is the case in many instances, boiled down to a single question. There are of course the “4 W’s” of any discussion or story — who, what, when and where — that you need to ask about pretty much anything you want to understand. And that criteria didn’t disappoint in this case, either. The one question was a specific version of the “what,” which was the beginning of answering all the other inevitable questions in the most effective manner, because generic answers have a limited usefulness.

The question I asked Mr. Biederman’s class was “What was your definition of media?” 

The response was much more organic than you might have thought. It would have been understandable if, being a student, when you are asked a question by an adult, you simply tell them what you think they want to hear. And given that I am certain Mr. Biederman had already taught them a lot about the role of media, “textbook” responses would have been honest and even appropriate. But that isn’t what I received in response to my question.

There were some standard answers, but I could tell that even those came from an understanding of the question rather than repeating back static information. Like I said, they were bright young students, and their answers made my job a lot easier. They already had a grasp of the basic mechanics of the individual parts that make up media and how those pieces both affect and are affected by current events. I just needed to help them understand how all those pieces should fit together, and the potential problems caused when those parts don’t exactly fit properly.

Although I like to think that I am a competent journalist, the possibility that I will always be 100% correct about everything isn’t something that everyone should depend upon because I am human after all, and humans make mistakes. I told the class this because I believe it is something they needed to learn, and to learn early. I urged them to question everything and to verify information by consulting other credible resources. People being fallible is always a possibility; and when compounded by the fact that some individuals and organizations actively misrepresent or outright lie, then information needs to be processed and understood rather than simply absorbed.

We talked about the necessity of research and the value of credibility as well, and what each of those things mean. I say we talked, because by that point it had become less of a lecture than an interaction. I was impressed by the grasp they had of how some sources of information, and how some reports of current events, seem to be accurate if you don’t examine them too closely. I gave them some advice on how to fact-check a story and was pleased to see that the seeds of that knowledge had already been planted. They seemed to have a healthy skepticism that, if it remains focused, won’t become the cynicism that often comes with age. Questions, I assured them, were good things and a powerful tool to understand the world around them.

The last thing I enjoyed talking with them about was an assignment to write a letter to the editor. That could be a powerful tool, I told them, and one that they shouldn’t take lightly. I reminded them that letters such as that represented their opinions and their voices and assured them that each of them was entitled to not only have their own opinion, but to voice that opinion as well. I also urged them to be clear and concise, and to make sure that those opinions were based in fact to the best of their ability — advice, I believe, that is sound for anyone to follow.

And as I left the classroom that day, I was reminded of something that I have thought since I myself had sat at one of those desks. Learning is not only a privilege and a right, but it is also a duty. We and we alone are responsible for processing the things that go through our minds. Educators can be diligent and teach to the best of their ability — and frequently do — but they cannot actually learn for someone else. No, each of us must do that for ourselves, hopefully with more help than hindrance along the way. And if we begin with a firm foundation, then the subsequent knowledge we gain can be used to build a better life not only for ourselves but our communities as well.

 

Reach CHARLES ROMANS at cromans@dailyindependent.com

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