Did MLK Predict the Rise of Fake News?

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If you’ve spent any time on our site, you probably know how much we like online learning. It’s one of the best ways to earn a degree. But more importantly, the web is our portal into a limitless world of knowledge, information, and personal expression. Its capacity to enrich, enlighten, and entertain is unparalleled. But so too is its incredible capacity to disinform, to mislead, and to foster deep ideological divisions, the kind bred of ignorance and misunderstanding.

The internet may give us access to more information than we ever imagined possible, but it has not improved our ability to evaluate that information, to understand it, to contextualize it, to qualify it, or to reconcile it with our own personal prejudices.

This may sound like a distinctly modern conundrum, an especially timely one given today’s rancorous political climate. However, if it is a modern conundrum, Martin Luther King Jr. understood it, predicted it, and even identified its root cause more than 70 years ago. More remarkable still, he was only 18 when he warned us—with eerie accuracy—that our educational failures were leading us into a deepening moral and intellectual crisis.

The internet is ground zero for the rise of “fake news”—a politically partisan kind of propaganda that masquerades as journalism, whether produced by Russian hackers, conspiracy theorists in tinfoil hats, or organized nationalist militias. As the field of journalism becomes ever-more diluted by this swelling tabloid sector, credible and seasoned press outlets are under constant attack, forced to defend their commitment to truth in spite of the abounding evidence of their legitimacy. The result is a virtual Wild West where the expression of ideas—however inaccurate or abhorrent—far overshadows the conveyance of truth.

Martin Luther King Jr. saw it coming.

No, he didn’t anticipate the emergence of web technology. Nor did he predict that this outlet would give Russia the tools to manipulate the American electoral process. What he did predict was our educational failures. He predicted the direct connection between these failures and our inability to discern fact from fiction, our difficulty in defending truth against distortion, and the way that these competing versions of reality would only intensify the forces of hatred and inequality.

Today, in observance of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, we take a closer look at King’s words, and at ourselves.

Martin Luther King Jr. as a Junior

In the early 1940s, Morehouse College was grappling with flagging enrollment. The vaunted historically black college sought to remedy its admission challenges by inviting gifted high school students to take its entrance exam. King was among those who passed, and thus entered college at just 15 years of age.

He would spend three years at Morehouse before disembarking between his junior and senior years to attend seminary. But his time there was consequential, not just at Morehouse, but as part of the deeply unequal American higher education system. At just 18, and having recently begun his pursuit of the ministry, King returned to Morehouse, where he wrote the editorial “The Purpose of Education” in the January–February 1947 issue of the campus newspaper, the Maroon Tiger.

It was at this point in his studies—halfway between the classroom and the pulpit—that King’s intellectual gifts and moral courage collided. In a brief treatise on education, King openly blasted recently deceased Georgia governor Eugene Talmidge, noting that the man’s considerable intellect amounted to nothing in light of his commitment to the idea of white supremacy. King used this contradiction to offer a startlingly prescient assessment of American education and its perilous trajectory. In “The Purpose of Education,” King’s observations on race, education, and the destructive capacity of ignorance hinted at intellectual imperative underlying the civil rights movement. But his words also capture our current moment in history so accurately that it’s hard not to be haunted by them.

And it seems appropriate that these insights on education came not from a seasoned civil rights leader, but from a young student only discovering the power of speaking out.

The Purpose of Education

King begins his brief editorial by arguing that we often pursue education for the wrong reasons—money and power. He argues that instead, education should enable us to become more efficient, to advance the individual goals in our lives, and to achieve quick, resolute, and effective thinking. That makes sense. King’s call for a more practical kind of education was not itself revolutionary.

It’s the way that King spotlights the relationship between education’s moral bankruptcy and our broader cultural failures that rings most true. He states:

To think incisively and to think for one’s self is very difficult. We are prone to let our mental life become invaded by legions of half truths, prejudices, and propaganda. At this point, I often wonder whether or not education is fulfilling its purpose. A great majority of the so-called educated people do not think logically and scientifically. Even the press, the classroom, the platform, and the pulpit in many instances do not give us objective and unbiased truths. To save man from the morass of propaganda, in my opinion, is one of the chief aims of education. Education must enable one to sift and weigh evidence, to discern the true from the false, the real from the unreal, and the facts from the fiction.

These words might have have been written about the 2016 presidential election, in which millions of Americans read, shared, and argued passionately about thousands of false news stories, political memes, and racially charged comments produced by Russia-backed trolls. The spread of false information through social media was powerful. Even more powerful was the incapacity of so many Americans to discern this falsehood from truth.

It is especially troubling that King’s words remain so applicable today when one considers that he wrote them in a time of segregation. King warns that education in this context of segregation was inherently contradictory, that it was dangerous to teach young men reason without morality, intelligence without character, and enlightenment without equality. Segregation and its ideological defenses, King recognized, were proof of the root failures in American education.

Fair Warning

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 brought an end to legally sanctioned segregation. So why do King’s words hit so close to home. Well, for one thing, the Civil Rights Act was hardly the end of racial division, nor of the academic and philosophical lies that have forever magnified this division.

In our time, these lies are borne out through an even wider variety of cultural contexts, particularly those proliferated on the internet. The debate over fake news and the challenge of trusting our own perceptions—two topics of increasing relevance to public life—demonstrate the chilling accuracy of King’s warning.

King declared in “The Purpose of Education”:

The complete education gives one not only power of concentration, but worthy objectives upon which to concentrate. The broad education will, therefore, transmit to one not only the accumulated knowledge of the race but also the accumulated experience of social living.

If we are not careful, our colleges will produce a group of close-minded, unscientific, illogical propagandists, consumed with immoral acts. Be careful, ’brethren!’ Be careful, teachers!

Rarely has the US been more divided than it is today, nor have we ever been more vulnerable to the legitimization of the close-minded, the unscientific, the illogical, and the propagandist. Just as King did in his time as a student, it is your right to stand against these things. Be open, scientific, logical, and, above all, be good to one another. King recognized that, in a true education, these things are inseparable.

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