Opinion |

How Our Education System Creates Fake News

Everyone is quick to blame the global economy and identity politics for the problem, but overlooks the protracted crisis in Western public education

Ofra Rudner
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First-graders starting the school year in Jerusalem (illustrative photo).
First-graders starting the school year in Jerusalem (illustrative photo).Credit: Emil Salman
Ofra Rudner

Soul-searching by the liberal camp – especially since Donald Trump’s election – has analyzed the reasons for the triumph of fascist demagoguery and “fake news.” Two key culprits have emerged from this debate: the global economy and politically correct discourse.

For some reason, though, one acute issue has been ignored: the large-scale, protracted crisis in Western public education. The United States and Israel are part of this crisis – today’s Israeli and American voters have grown into it, and today’s teachers and parents continue to recycle it.

To a large extent, alienation from critical thinking and education begins in our schools. Racism, discrimination and lack of trust flourish in neglected educational systems. Public education was always conservative, but as the pace of cultural change accelerated around it, the more public education regressed – like an old railway car uncoupled from civilization.

The rising strength of capitalism also had an adverse effect. Not only for technical reasons, such as the abandonment of the public sphere, but also because of the capitalistic educational approach, which encouraged a “grades factory” and the transformation of education into an obedient cog in an aggressive social order.

Humanistic realms and values have been increasingly pushed aside. Later, privatization eroded education, deepening the social gaps. These also grew because of the information revolution, which remained outside of public education and educated only the educated – because it is impossible to navigate the sea of information without expanded horizons and connections, which is the cultural capital that children receive privately in educated homes.

It seems public education is blind to the fact that knowledge and education have become an octopod, multidisciplinary culture. Generally speaking, the approach of public education to what is now called “culture” recalls that of a colorless file clerk. It simply can’t read it; its algorithm is too linear. Accumulation of cultural capital requires broad-based learning, which brings together areas of education that schools today define as separate (and are even ranked in a rigid hierarchy based on their economic utility). The information revolution requires a reexamination of the role of teachers and textbooks – knowledge is everywhere, but the question is how to access it.

These are just examples of more complex challenges, because much of the required correction involves a systemic change in our educational approach. But that’s not as hopeless as it sounds, since the knowledge is already accumulating.

So why did education become left out of the debate on the victory of demagoguery and fake news? Perhaps because liberal analysis of the situation is subject to fixed rules – that which is contemporary, and that which involves identity politics. The debate over increased religiosity in schools, for example, goes by these rules and deals with a ridiculously narrow, symptomatic aspect of the system’s weakness.

In contrast, the global crisis in public education is an ongoing issue and identity politics is too narrow to handle it. Instead of talking about the crisis in education, we have been talking about the damage caused by political correctness – ironic, since political correctness sprang up as a neoliberal alternative in spirit to public education.

In fact, its insularity and complacency does not manifest itself in ostensible preferential treatment for minorities, but rather, its disconnected pretentiousness to “reeducate” and present a model of a “new person,” while the civil discourse is declining and public education deteriorating.

One way or another, it has become clear there are no instant solutions to racism and social gaps – that is still the role of public education.