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Fake news and humanities education

Timothy Hampton, professor of French and comparative literature, director of the Doreen B. Townsend Center for the Humanities | August 9, 2018
"The Donation of Constantine," by an unknown painter (Wikimedia Commons)

“The Donation of Constantine,” by an unknown painter (Wikimedia Commons)

In 1440, the Italian scholar Lorenzo Valla dropped a bombshell by completing a study of an old Latin document. The document, presumed to have been written in the fourth century, “proved” that the Western half of the Roman Empire had been given to the Catholic Church by the Emperor Constantine, following his miraculous recovery from an illness.

For centuries the “Donation,” as it was called, had given documentary authority to the church’s political domination of Western Europe. The only problem was that it was a fake. Valla proved this through a close analysis of the language of the document. Drawing on his deep reading in the classics and his mastery of languages, he showed that the “Donation” came from a much later historical period than the moment at which it was assumed to have been composed. Thus it could not possibly have been genuine.

The notorious “Donation of Constantine” was what today we would call Fake News. Like a phony website or a false Facebook post, it presented an appealing fiction that delivered a message its readers wanted to hear. Its clumsy Latin was the Renaissance equivalent of the blurred bank logos and awkward English of today’s internet scammers.

Valla’s analysis was one of the first uses of what we today call “critical reading,” the deep study of the language of a text to grasp its deeper meanings, historical roots, or ethical significance. Valla is the first of the great critical readers, textual interpreters who can see through words and images to discern their tricks and falsehoods. He is the scholarly ancestor to Martin Luther, who upended Christendom by reading the entire Bible critically, to Sherlock Holmes, who could see the secrets inside of letters and inscriptions, and to Dashiell Hammett’s detective Sam Spade, who scornfully refers to the obviously fake Maltese Falcon as a “dingus.”

Within the university, the practices of critical reading are principally the province of the humanities. Through their engagement with poems, stories, and historical documents, humanities students master the skills needed to pierce the fog of propaganda and distortion that passes for much “information” in the new digital age. By learning to make sense of texts and images from the past, documents in other languages, works in unfamiliar genres or traditions, humanities students become conversant with the techniques of critical analysis. They develop the skills necessary for informed reading. These skills are crucial in the current moment.

But the mastery of critical reading is not about students taking a random section of Freshman Composition and learning a few technical terms to “get it out of the way.” To discern the fake, one must know the genuine almost by instinct. This involves not only reading for analysis or interpretation of a specific text (that term paper, that essay question). It includes broad exposure to different types of writing and language, a cultivation of the practices of deep reading.

Obviously, the study of “literature” (in the broadest sense) doesn’t teach students unerringly to recognize the fake, since fictional works are by definition inventions that we believe in as we read. The importance of humanities training is broader than the fake/not fake opposition. The more students are exposed to different kinds of texts, and to different languages, the better their judgment will be in dealing with information, both false and true.

The cultivation of judgment requires broad reading. Students who have read only one kind of text or language — say, technical writing or recent American English — are at a disadvantage in the complex media world they face as they pursue their careers and lives after Berkeley. The skills of critical reading and interpretation are lifelong skills. They involve reading new things and old things, strange things and familiar things. And they are instilled by humanities training. In a functioning democracy, the capacity to read well and critically is the most important gift we can give our students.

Current attempts to deal with the Fake News epidemic get at only half the problem. They involve companies such as Facebook and Twitter chasing the “source” of the evil and identifying the point of origin for a given message. If we can find the origin, the thinking goes, we can kill the lie by simply deleting it. This is fine as far as it goes, but it relies on what literary critics call the “intentional fallacy”—the idea that messages mean only what their authors intend. We know that messages, even “good” messages, are prey to distortion and misuse—to “repurposing”—the moment they leave the desks of their authors. And while the attempt to purge bad actors from the Internet is laudable and long overdue, one will never be able to identify all the sources of mendacity. What we can do—and what we must do—is train our readers. We must equip our students and ourselves with the tools of critical discrimination, with good judgment, with the techniques and practices of critical reading. Students who know how to see through fake messages—whether they come from Washington or Moscow—will be better prepared to assume their roles as responsible and competent citizens.

Critical reading—literary reading, historical reading, philological reading—is not simply the pastime of the aesthetically inclined among us. It is the crucial skill in the current moment. It is a tool of citizenship. The task of the university must thus be to recognize and promote the practices of reading fostered by the humanities. The Fake News crisis, moreover, should make it clear—as the campus develops new initiatives and areas of study—that we need to move beyond the divisions between STEM fields and the humanities, between data science and literature, that all too often hinder training in critical thought. For, whether we like it or not, Fake News is everywhere. We are all heirs to Lorenzo Valla now.

Comments to “Fake news and humanities education

  1. Foucault, not Faucault. “Literary departments,” “students in the humanities,” “English literary departments,” Good thing there are no generalizations here. “Critical reading, as it is taught in literature departments (another generalization) focus (should be “focuses”) on the content” (by no means true, certainly not as a generalization). “Later writers Faucault (sic) Barthes, and Derrida were able to mount a comprehensive assault within English literary circles do away (should be “to do away”) with the notion of truth entirely.” I studied with Foucault, Barthes and Derrida all three. None of what is said here about them is true. Yes, philology is a kind of critical reading to the extent that it uncovers the history of meaning. Was this response written by a bot?

  2. This article indulges in kind of slip and slide that writings coming out of literary departments have become notorious for: a kind of sophisticated obfuscation that ironically the article is arguing against.

    First, as the writer admits, Valla wasn’t a “critical reader”. He may possibly be called a philologist. At any rate he analysed the form and not the content of document. While critical reading, as it is taught in literature departments focus on the content. Specifically, the supposed biases in the text. Students in the humanities therefore are NOT taught what Valla knew.

    Secondly it is the very notion of something like intentional fallacy which allows the current crop of falsehoods legitimacy. Intention used to anchor the meaning of a text, without reference to intention it becomes everybody’s plaything. Intentional fallacy was among the earlier batch of weapons deployed against truth by English literary departments. Later writers Faucault, Barthes, and Derrida were able to mount a more comprehensive assault within English literary circles do away with the notion of truth entirely.

    English departments don’t teach critical reading. They teach you to read a text ideologically. They teach you to start with biases and then confirm those biases by a highly subjective reading of a text. And they teach you to write as this article itself is written.

    Beyond the misappropriation of Valla, (not to mention Luther, and two fictional characters, who have the barest of the bare, the most tenuous, connection among them, and the latter two being more likely to identify with scientific rather than theoretical methods,) the article does little else than latch on to the current buzzword of ‘fake news’. Identifying the source of a falsehood on social media doesn’t fall into intentional fallacy. It proceeds from an objective judgement about the content of a post as being false and harmful irrespective of the intentions of it’s author. In fact the question of intention doesn’t even enter the picture.

    The entire point is made simply to take a condescending tone towards efforts of social media companies to curb falsehood.

    The need of the hour is indeed to teach judgement and discernment in readers. Judgement and discernment cannot be instilled without a substantial investment in the idea of truth. The need of the hour is to ground meaning within context, text, and intention. The need of the hour is to do away with the fluidity of subjectivity. The only question is whether English literary departments are honest and self critical enough to correctly diagnose the problem and then embark on a course of treatment.

  3. There is more to savoir faire, as you say, than comparison shopping. We can’t let debunking “Everything is full of bunk!” become what we’re known for. Developing ‘good judgment’ is a good start, a positive assertion rather than an acerbic slinging of arrows.

  4. Without “critical reading” by the masses we no longer have a society…let alone “an enlightened” society”. How sad that this is the objective of ideologues regardless of where they are on the ideological spectrum. The battle between faith-based ideology and fact-based reality is not going well.

  5. Well put, Prof. Hampton. A fine defense, though certainly not the only defense, of the liberal arts.

    “Present[ing] an appealing fiction” is the first trick that propagandists pull from their sleeves, perhaps even before misdirection: tell people lies that they really want to believe. Tax cuts for the rich will help the working class. A big, beautiful wall will make your job secure. Et cetera.

    My concern is that rather than encouraging the cultivation of critical engagement, close reading is nowadays being reduced to _debunking_. The practitioners of the liberal arts are painting themselves, with help from certain interests, as elitist Debbie-Downers who just tear down and belittle everyone else’s shallow-yet-sincere convictions. As we learned in 2016, certain publics have had quite enough of expert opinion.

    I was disturbed to see friends and colleagues during the most recent CA elections deciding whom to vote for by googling on their laptops the candidates’ names and the proposition numbers and then being careful to read more than one or two of the popup results — this was what passes for diligent investigation, a sort of personal rehearsal of the bloviation theater of television news, where getting the ‘whole story’ consists of letting two or three party or industry or interest group hacks repeat their talking points for a couple of minutes and then concluding that the truth must be somewhere inbetween, or some combination of their particular spins. Isn’t that what the educated folks tell us to do, to compare both sides and then decide for ourselves?

    Well, we (educated elite) need to do a better job of messaging. Take control of our branding (ugh). There is more to savoir faire, as you say, than comparison shopping. We can’t let debunking “Everything is full of bunk!” become what we’re known for. Developing ‘good judgment’ is a good start, a positive assertion rather than an acerbic slinging of arrows. We can promote models for living the good life along with an eye on the life around us that isn’t automatically jaundiced.

    Does education of the sort you defend here necessarily come into conflict with populist aspirations? How might we manage/resolve/bridge that divide?

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