For many Americans, Donald Trump is a hero on a journey; for others, he is a villainous stranger who has come to town. No one knows how the story will play out, but to deny that the country is in the midst of a fascinating rising action, to use a literary term, is to admit that you’re not paying attention.
Like many educators, I am appalled at the wealth of fake news that floats around social media and the power it has over young people who do not necessarily have the skills to interpret it. Many adults are worried about how to best teach strategies for interpreting fake news, and many of those strategies seem to surround the idea of fact checking. And although classrooms like mine should place a strong focus on helping students navigate the evolving world of the internet and social media, to be critical consumers of media, and to develop a general desire to seek facts above fiction, to concentrate solely on fact checking is a naive approach to the problem.
Just as it was for me so many years ago in Coach Mac’s class, narrative, both fiction and nonfiction, will always be more alluring than a collection of facts—for better or worse—because narrative is rooted in the human experience. People want to connect with characters, want to see a plot develop to its end, and want to engage in the fascinating layers of conflict.
Explaining to someone, however accurately, that Donald Trump didn't help save 2,100 jobs with the Carrier deal, but rather 850, and that he may have actually had very little to do with it, or that the deal may have negative implications for the economy and job growth down the road, means virtually nothing to someone who has lost a job and gotten it back. To this person, there is a clear narrative that resonates: Trump is the hero. Telling someone whose only image and interaction ever with a woman wearing a hijab is through negative stereotypes on social media that five of the last 12 Nobel Peace Prize winners were Muslim means little to someone whose mind has generalized such a character as the villain.
Facts (or the lack thereof) mean very little to people caught up in storylines. The best way to teach true understanding is not by teaching students facts (although that is still a valuable lesson); it is to teach them to analyze, as one does with elements of narrative.
When I was growing up in a small town, my only contact with Latinos was with two men who worked with me in a local restaurant. I was a waitress, and they worked in the kitchen. These men were a little more flirty with me than is probably appropriate for grown men to be toward a 17-year-old girl. They sometimes made me uncomfortable, and because of that, I began to develop a perception about all Latinos, based solely on these two men. The story I crafted from this experience, regardless of the facts, was that Latino men were inappropriately flirtatious toward women. Facts and statistics would have meant very little to changing the story in my mind about what it meant to be a Latino man. My facts were wrong, but my story was what mattered to me. If I saw anyone I perceived as a Latino man in public, and I was alone, I would feel myself become anxious. How could facts in a moment of fear for a 17-year-old girl make any difference? It would be equivalent to telling someone who is afraid of flying that more deaths occur by car than plane.