Kurt Andersen’s Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire: A 500 Year History is as fascinating and disturbing as it sounds, a detailed account of our country’s love affair with magical thinking and conspiracy theories. According to Andersen, our national character was seeded by hucksters luring gullible Englishmen to the colonies with false promises of easy gold and religious zealots, too extreme even for Protestant Europe, striking out for an new promised land. Even when these expectations failed to jive with reality, these first transplants felt fortunate to find what seemed to be unlimited space and freedom to start the world anew. “In America,” writes Andersen, “there was an infinity of highways and new places not so far away where outcast true believers could move” (35). Andersen is referring to exiled Puritan Anne Hutchinson here, but he could just as easily be writing about Joseph Smith, L. Ron Hubbard, or Joel Osteen.
Like many people, I’ve spent a good deal of time consuming and avoiding news coverage about the Parkland, Florida school shooting and its political aftermath. We are all heartbroken and angry and upset. A lot of the coverage has been hard, sometimes distracting, and some of it inspiring. I’ve been grateful to journalists for their treatment of the student movement emerging from the shooting’s wake, for giving kids the air time, amplifying their voices, and taking them seriously.
I tried something new with my seventh graders in library class and I want to share it with you.
I imagine that many young people (though not all) have different expectations of journalists than most adults do. I don’t blame them. I rarely thought about the news as a tween or teen. I was fairly self-centered and more interested in my friend group. If students today feel like I did then, are they wondering what the big deal is when I try to arm them with strategies to spot fake news? Do young people know why the grownups are so bent out of shape about fake news? If students don’t interact much with the real news, if they don’t appreciate what the real news is supposed to do, then why should they worry about fake news?
I thought it couldn’t hurt if students asked their parents what they thought of the news. Maybe a conversation with an authority at home would put future news literacy lessons in context. I also like any kind of assignment that gets kids interacting with their parents. So I asked my students to record an interview with a parent or someone from a different generation, asking for opinions about the news media.