Libraries and Learning

Information Literacy and the Great Divide

July 13, 2017

There are many reasons why we are seeing party lines form on whether the press and higher education are on the whole bad for society. Our Pluribus are no longer Unum. They never were, though the dividing lines are drawn more thickly now.

When I was growing up “hardhats” – men who worked in construction and manufacturing and probably belonged to a union that helped them negotiate a middle-class life – had no use for higher ed because they despised the students who were dressing oddly, growing their hair too long, publicly enjoying drugs, sex, and rock-n-roll, and protesting the war in Vietnam from the safety of a college campus. Hard work and patriotism versus radical elites who never worked a day in their life – sound familiar? But political parties back then didn’t align with those differences. Hardhats were likely to vote for the party that supported labor unions, and the south was a Democratic stronghold. The party (and, let’s face it, a lot of unions) made accommodations with Jim Crow and waved Confederate flags until difference were irreconcilable and the south turned red.

Politics in my youth meant cutting deals with people in other parties, not just with lobbyists and donors. There’s a compelling visualization of a 2014 study of cross-aisle cooperation between 1949 and 2012 makes it pretty clear that cooperation is no longer how the legislative sausage is made.

We’re getting less Unum in many ways that have a lot to do with how we decide as a society to organize our common needs as well as the personalization of of what we see run through two giant advertising firms (Google and Facebook) not to mention the fracturing of our information diets. The rise of a vigorous “alt-right” news universe has no paralleled on the left, unless you count all of traditional news sources as left-wing, which of course is an “alt-right” argument that has convinced a lot of Republicans to distrust the press.

These are all information issues. We look at data and draw congressional districts to yield political results. We study the numbers and devise new ways to make it hard for people who won’t vote for your candidate to vote at all. The current congressional majority wants to starve the next decennial Census because it will gather information that could shrink the influence of their base. And we use data very deliberately to divide and conquer at the ballot box.

We have been using detailed personal data and computers to craft targeted political messages for a very long time. Remember the smartypants Harvard undergrad who got famous for using public information to design an atomic bomb as a school project? He founded Aristotle, Inc., gathering voter registration data and mashing it together with other data using a spanking new Apple II computer to microtarget voters in the early 1980s. It’s a lot more sophisticated now. There’s more data and more power to crunch it.

So we have a divided society with nearly entirely separate news environments and a political trend toward stark separation. No wonder there’s a party difference in how people view higher ed.

There are a great many reasons people might feel higher ed is failing us – substituting student tuition for public funding as a revenue stream has resulted in crippling personal debt. We’ve cut costs by exploiting underpaid adjuncts who have the most to do with students’ learning while increasing salaries of the top administrators tasked with running their institution like a business. We’ve created an individual-focused rewards structure for faculty that means they are too busy publishing research to explain it to anyone outside their specialty. And don’t forget the age-old shock of having your kids come home at Thanksgiving spouting new ideas and disrespecting all the work you did to raise them right.

But what seems to have really grabbed the right at present is the idea that conservative values are being throttled in expensive PC indoctrination camps. In fact the president of the conservative National Association of Scholars is pleased that Republicans don’t trust universities. He’s been telling people not to for years. What seems most effective though, has been to pour millions of dollars into traveling provocations that get in the news when the circus comes to town. The Young America’s Foundation which has trained conservative leaders like Jeff Sessions and has a national program of sending hard-right conservative speakers to campuses hoping that reactions to provacateurs like David Horowitz and Ann Coulter will provide viral evidence that higher ed is corrupting our youth. Robert Mercer who poured money into Brietbart, the Trump campaign, and into developing more effective ways to use data in campaigns to elect the people he wants to have in office is apparently still paying Milo Yiannapolous’s bills as he continues to develop a trendy brand of shock-jock campus celebrity.

When Facebook finally admitted some culpability for fake news after Trump was elected many librarians said we had the answer: we knew how to help people spot the fakes. But asking people to conduct background checks on everything they read is a big ask, and if your news universe doesn’t have any contiguous borders with other people’s news, those skills won’t help much. Yet critical information literacy is more important than ever. We’ve been divided very deliberately by the clever use of information and by creating networks of novel information sources amplified by social platforms that exist to gather and exploit data, not to inform. We need to heed Deep Throat’s advice to follow the money as part of understanding how information works today. We need to pay attention to how information delivery shapes what we see. We need to help one another see the big picture.

There’s a lot more to information literacy than learning how to search and tips for evaluating sources. There’s also a lot at stake.


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Babel Fish Bouillabaisse II Copyright © 2019 by Barbara Fister is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.