Fake news and humanities education

"The Donation of Constantine," by an unknown painter (Wikimedia Commons)

“The Donation of Constantine,” by an unknown painter (Wikimedia Commons)

In 1440, the Italian scholar Lorenzo Valla dropped a bombshell by completing a study of an old Latin document. The document, presumed to have been written in the fourth century, “proved” that the Western half of the Roman Empire had been given to the Catholic Church by the Emperor Constantine, following his miraculous recovery from an illness.

For centuries the “Donation,” as it was called, had given documentary authority to the church’s political domination of Western Europe. The only problem was that it was a fake. Valla proved this through a close analysis of the language of the document. Drawing on his deep reading in the classics and his mastery of languages, he showed that the “Donation” came from a much later historical period than the moment at which it was assumed to have been composed. Thus it could not possibly have been genuine.

The notorious “Donation of Constantine” was what today we would call Fake News. Like a phony website or a false Facebook post, it presented an appealing fiction that delivered a message its readers wanted to hear. Its clumsy Latin was the Renaissance equivalent of the blurred bank logos and awkward English of today’s internet scammers.

Valla’s analysis was one of the first uses of what we today call “critical reading,” the deep study of the language of a text to grasp its deeper meanings, historical roots, or ethical significance. Valla is the first of the great critical readers, textual interpreters who can see through words and images to discern their tricks and falsehoods. He is the scholarly ancestor to Martin Luther, who upended Christendom by reading the entire Bible critically, to Sherlock Holmes, who could see the secrets inside of letters and inscriptions, and to Dashiell Hammett’s detective Sam Spade, who scornfully refers to the obviously fake Maltese Falcon as a “dingus.”

Within the university, the practices of critical reading are principally the province of the humanities. Through their engagement with poems, stories, and historical documents, humanities students master the skills needed to pierce the fog of propaganda and distortion that passes for much “information” in the new digital age. By learning to make sense of texts and images from the past, documents in other languages, works in unfamiliar genres or traditions, humanities students become conversant with the techniques of critical analysis. They develop the skills necessary for informed reading. These skills are crucial in the current moment.

But the mastery of critical reading is not about students taking a random section of Freshman Composition and learning a few technical terms to “get it out of the way.” To discern the fake, one must know the genuine almost by instinct. This involves not only reading for analysis or interpretation of a specific text (that term paper, that essay question). It includes broad exposure to different types of writing and language, a cultivation of the practices of deep reading.

Obviously, the study of “literature” (in the broadest sense) doesn’t teach students unerringly to recognize the fake, since fictional works are by definition inventions that we believe in as we read. The importance of humanities training is broader than the fake/not fake opposition. The more students are exposed to different kinds of texts, and to different languages, the better their judgment will be in dealing with information, both false and true.

The cultivation of judgment requires broad reading. Students who have read only one kind of text or language — say, technical writing or recent American English — are at a disadvantage in the complex media world they face as they pursue their careers and lives after Berkeley. The skills of critical reading and interpretation are lifelong skills. They involve reading new things and old things, strange things and familiar things. And they are instilled by humanities training. In a functioning democracy, the capacity to read well and critically is the most important gift we can give our students.

Current attempts to deal with the Fake News epidemic get at only half the problem. They involve companies such as Facebook and Twitter chasing the “source” of the evil and identifying the point of origin for a given message. If we can find the origin, the thinking goes, we can kill the lie by simply deleting it. This is fine as far as it goes, but it relies on what literary critics call the “intentional fallacy”—the idea that messages mean only what their authors intend. We know that messages, even “good” messages, are prey to distortion and misuse—to “repurposing”—the moment they leave the desks of their authors. And while the attempt to purge bad actors from the Internet is laudable and long overdue, one will never be able to identify all the sources of mendacity. What we can do—and what we must do—is train our readers. We must equip our students and ourselves with the tools of critical discrimination, with good judgment, with the techniques and practices of critical reading. Students who know how to see through fake messages—whether they come from Washington or Moscow—will be better prepared to assume their roles as responsible and competent citizens.

Critical reading—literary reading, historical reading, philological reading—is not simply the pastime of the aesthetically inclined among us. It is the crucial skill in the current moment. It is a tool of citizenship. The task of the university must thus be to recognize and promote the practices of reading fostered by the humanities. The Fake News crisis, moreover, should make it clear—as the campus develops new initiatives and areas of study—that we need to move beyond the divisions between STEM fields and the humanities, between data science and literature, that all too often hinder training in critical thought. For, whether we like it or not, Fake News is everywhere. We are all heirs to Lorenzo Valla now.

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