As 2017 comes to a close, what impression will our students have of the world in which they live? Is it of an angry and threatening place? If they follow the news – even if only through social media – they might benefit from ending 2017 or starting 2018 by stepping back from the predominantly shocking or grim events that so often characterize headline news to encounter some of the good news that can easily get lost. For TOK, a class on “good news” reinforces much that we teach about knowledge production – and at the same time offers (perhaps) a little lift of the heart.
In TOK, we encourage students to recognize that knowledge is humanly produced – accompanied by a purpose, a set of values often explicitly articulated, a method, and a model of appropriate communication. For the sciences, there are parameters that support care and scrutiny. For the news, what are the expectations?
Limitless Questions, Limited Time
Oh, oh. Danger alert. We ask big questions in TOK, but have only limited class time in which to chase them. I recommend, if you want to end 2017 or open 2018 with a class on “good news 2017”, that you skirt the edges of the whirlpool of questions and debates that could suck you down, along with your entire class. I suggest that you aim to stay light and – oh yes! – on the surface! It has eddies enough!
Admittedly, you might intend to deal seriously with the following: journalistic ideals, changing business and production models of journalism and their effects on what knowledge is circulated, media bubbles and polarization of groups in what they know about the world, and issues of truth in charges flung about of “fake news” (or, in history, Hitler’s castigation of the “lügenpresse”/lying press). If so, you might like to look back to some of the posts I’ve written previously by clicking on “media” in the tag cloud of this blog. However, in that case I imagine you won’t choose “good news” as your entry point!
What I’m proposing is a quicker, lighter, happier reinforcement of principles familiar in TOK (see my TOK course book, page 150), in dealing with representation of the world, in both images and language:
- What is selected to report or represent?
- Where is the emphasis placed in proportion of coverage and techniques of attention?
- What emotional colouring is created through language or photographic techniques?
- How do we frame the story in context, with stated goals, headlines, or associated stories and images?
We can apply similar questioning to content that lifts our hearts as to content that leaves us disturbed. As teachers always looking for material to prompt discussion, we know that aiming to be light and happy does not equate to being trivial!
Goal: quick, light, happy activity
Of course, we can never entirely predict when a lighthearted activity will veer into something else. But as TOK teachers, we know better than to depend on accuracy of prediction – and we’re prepared to catch and (probably) enjoy the unexpected. So here’s my own approach – as a source of ideas for your own!
1. Prepare a list of good news stories from 2017. You can make your own list. However, Future Crunch, a blog I personally like and follow, has already produced a list you might consider using. If your class time is particularly tight, you might even select a range of 20 or 30 of their good news stories to launch your class:
“99 Reasons 2017 Was A Great Year” with the following subtitle: “If you’re feeling despair about the fate of humanity in the 21st century, you might want to reconsider.”
The article has a byline (by Angus Hervey) and a place from which it comes (Capetown and Melbourne) – as students should notice. It comes with an overt principle of selection, as they should also notice before they give any attention to the examples: “In 2017, the global media picked up all of the problems, and none of the solutions. To fix that, we spent the past 12 months searching for good news from every corner of the planet….” It even comes with occasional authorial sarcasm, as in #39: “These astonishing achievements were of course, reported by every media outlet on the planet.” Is the blog neutral? No, and not intended to be! Indeed, the very existence of a list of “good news” invites instant comments on the principle of selection – the selection within this source, and, as part of its point, in news in general.
2. Set up discussion in advance with some general questions about “good news”. These are the ones that occur to me, but you’re likely to have others as well.
- What truth is there to the maxim “no news is good news”?
- Why do you think that “good news” does not take a more prominent place in the media? Are there characteristics of much “good news” that make it less “newsworthy” for a competitive daily news source?
- Is it more important for us to know about the “bad news” than the “good news”? Do we have a responsibility to be aware of either, neither, or both as we build our knowledge of the world? Why?
3. When you give students the list to read, prime them in advance with evaluative questions to go beyond the simple “good news”/”bad news” divide that serves as the starting point. Although dealing with happy news generally avoids the rancour that some bad news can trigger, the news selected to be “good news” still does depend on the values behind the perspective.
- Are there any of the news stories that stand out for you as surprising – as events or situations of which you had not heard before? Is there any story that seems to you to be extraordinarily “good news” according to your own interests and concerns?
- Are there any of the stories that you, or others, might NOT consider to be “good news”? From a different perspective, could any of these be considered “bad news”? Can you identify the values that characterize such a perspective, and who is likely to hold it?
- The 99 news items are presented in categories: global health (items 1-16), global conservation (17–30), global standard of living (31–39), fossil fuels (40-51), clean energy (52-61), social justice (62-76), global violence (77-87), and animal protection (88-99). The writer is not suggesting that these are the only good news stories or the only categories, but the ones he has gathered together himself. Are there other categories that you might want to add, as important ones on which you would like to see an equivalent list of good news stories?
- What is your reaction to the claim in the blog Future Crunch: “If we want to change the story of the human race in the 21st century, we need to change the stories we tell ourselves.”
4. Concluding reflection: To what extent does the daily news represent life in the world? Offering a class this broad final question could summarize a class on “good news” to reinforce ongoing TOK commentary. Running topics include the ones I’ve suggested above: the influence of perspectives on what gets reported (selection, emphasis, colouring, framing), appreciation and evaluation of conflicting and complementary perspectives, and the larger understanding gained from analyzing the interplay of multiple points of view.
I’d want to close a lesson like this one, though, with an overview of the place of the news in our lives – largely in order to give students encouragement toward continued interest and engagement in the news and in the world. Too easily can they become overwhelmed by complexity; we need to offer them analytical strategies and appreciation of different perspectives so that they have “a way in” to reading and making sense of the media – and the world it reflects and shapes.
Too easily, too, can they despair over a tainted world and their own helplessness; we need to offer them also the “good news”, including fine human achievements, the advance of knowledge, and improvements in many people’s lives. In Theory of Knowledge, we don’t have a lot of time with students, but, in cooperation with our IB colleagues in other classes and in CAS, we certainly have a place in educating our students not to be cynical and paralyzed but to be thoughtfully engaged and active in the world.
And it’s a world in which they, in turn, may contribute to the future “good news.”
Angus Hervey, “99 Reasons 2017 Was A Great Year”, Future Crunch. Capetown and Melbourne, December 6, 2017. https://medium.com/future-crunch/99-reasons-2017-was-a-good-year-d119d0c32d19
image from creative commons https://pixabay.com/en/new-year-happy-new-year-good-year-1901690/