The COVID-19 pandemic has brought to the forefront many of the most noble aspects of humanity. Health-care professionals and essential workers have worked tirelessly and sacrificially, putting themselves at risk in order to serve others. Scientists have worked with speed and ingenuity to develop treatments and vaccines. Educators have innovated to keep students learning during lockdowns.
Unfortunately, some of the vices of humanity have also been on display. From those trying to turn a profit by hoarding scarce resources, to the tone of discussion around safety protocols, there is much to lament in the response to the pandemic. As someone who has worked in higher education for decades, one aspect of the uproar around the vaccines and the public safety measures has alarmed me: the mistrust of fact-based insight.
We live in an era of suspicion and even outright dismissal of experts. Citing a scholar with a PhD or a peer-reviewed study used to be sufficient grounds for your position. Such authoritative sources are now viewed with mistrust or even derision. This has real-world impacts on lives, as individuals believe and propagate misinformation—with devastating effects.
Proper methodology, scientific inquiry, and rigorous evaluation are foundational to education. In an age where those are not valued, there are inevitable problems for the higher education sector.
A driving factor in the distrust of experts is the democratization of communication. It used to require effort and real-world costs to share your opinion. Not everyone could get a comment or Op-Ed in a newspaper. While anyone was free to make their own flyers and distribute them around town, they would have to pay for the copies. While you might stand on a literal soap box on the corner, the reach of your message was limited by time and geography.
The internet exploded the constraints of space and expense. Anyone, from a Nobel laureate to disgruntled employee, can get a blog or social media handle. Once the information is published online, it can easily be spread far and wide. What’s more, the algorithms favor outlandish content: it attracts attention and users, which can be monetized. Expertise is not required to Tweet. In fact, thoughtful and substantive content doesn’t get much play. Snark and sensationalism trend, but sober discussion can’t generally be expressed in 140 characters, or even the generous allotment of 240 characters that Twitter introduced several years ago. Readers cannot comprehend complex arguments in the time it takes to scroll by. Memes trump careful argumentation. And our public dialogue suffers as a result. The inflammatory rhetoric bleeds over from the Twittersphere to real-life interactions, corroding relationships.
Twitter and Facebook are here to stay. It is not productive to bemoan bygone days of careful journalism or engaged readers. All too often, those are cast in a rosy glow of nostalgia that fails to do justice to the complexities of reality. Still, there has been a marked change in the way individuals consume and commodify information.
Higher education can and must respond.
I have three suggestions of inroads institutions can make. Through following these principles, we can take steps toward preserving credibility and thoughtful discourse.
Social media is a cacophony of perspectives. As noted earlier, often the most salacious content is magnified. Be aware that you have a voice and you will either use it to your credit or your detriment. A careless retweet can have serious consequences. Be intentional to add value to discussions. Just because you can tweet, it doesn’t follow that you should. Communicate thoughtfully. Conversely, be aware that at times if you choose to remain silent, you have functionally taken a position.
Consider the Manner as Well as The Message
Thoughtful, researched policies or positions can fall flat when they are not rolled out in a clear and considerate way. The how matters just as much as the what. When implementing COVID policies on your campus, the manner of your communication dictates how the policies are received. Communicate often. Be transparent about your methodology and reasoning. Show your regard for your constituents by involving them in the process. Strike a tone of respect and empathy, even as you are firm about the parameters that the leadership team has decided on.
Forge Meaningful Relationships
One of the most effective ways to combat misinformation has proved to be trusted community leaders speaking to those in their sphere of influence. Does your college make an effort to collaborate with organizations and businesses in your community as well as local nonprofits and charitable causes? Faculty can share their areas of expertise with local news outlets. Such cross pollination between community and college not only strengthens the community, it makes your program more robust and yields engaged graduates.
- Incremental improvements, new opportunities bolster campus accessibility - December 1, 2023
- Cultivating a workplace culture of gratitude - November 29, 2023
- Why diversity and STEM education are critical to our future workforce - November 24, 2023