Today we talked about truth. How do we sift through the material we are flooded with on a daily basis and figure out what is the truth? What assumptions do we make in the judgment of truth? In light of the political rhetoric we are bombarded with, and especially the GOP debate on CNN last night, the students had plenty to share and plenty to be outraged about. The conversation was lively.
We looked at a diary entry by Henry Stanley written in 1870 describing the “barbarous” and “filthy” people in the Congo and his justification in destroying them because of a perceived threat. We compared it to Mojimba’s account, King of the Congo, translated by a Catholic missionary, of the very same incident and how Mojimba thought these white people were their returned dead brothers from the river and how shocked Mojimba and his people were that their attempt to honor the white men was so tragically responded to. We discussed whether different perspectives of the same event can be true simultaneously. Is truth defined by facts alone? Or is truth an interpretation of facts? How do our perceptions shape the truth? Can the truth ever be fully known? More spirited conversation followed.
We read an excerpt of “Who are the Nacirema?,” a description of Americans (Nacirema spelled backwards) written as if by an alien describing common everyday activities as if they were sacred rituals. In fact, the piece is written with such an outsider’s point of view, that it is difficult at first to see that the piece is really written about us and not some native tribe somewhere. We talked about how the truth can be manipulated. (The students will write their own Nacirema piece next week.)
I shared that in my first job after college working for World Book Encyclopedia, I had to read the entire dictionary, to help figure out which words should be illustrated. I learned that every dictionary has a dozen or so false words in it. (So that when dictionaries are published, publishing companies know if another company has copied their words and can then sue them.) I also shared that the particular dictionary I was reading for World Book was a Thorndike-Barnhart dictionary and that many of the definitions were not written by panels of experts as I had always assumed, but were written by Clarence Barnhart, his son David, and a secretary.
The students became increasingly outraged.
I then had the students draw, to the best of their ability and without any reference, a map of the world. We will look at these maps tomorrow along with Mercator projections and other published maps that distort truth.
While the students were drawing their maps, DL said, “Oh, can’t we just look at a real map?”
“Hmmmm. What exactly is a real map?” I answered, stroking my chin and gazing at the ceiling.
“You are giving me such a headache— a good one, but such a headache.”
I love my job.