On Questionable Sources

Mar 10, 2014 by

Most students are taught to value books as sources of knowledge, but what if the knowledge a book  has to offer is false or deemed bad or even dangerous by society?  Recently, in my college-level class a professor brought some books that were written by Holocaust deniers and celebrated Nazi Germany.  They were a donation for the Jewish Studies Program.  What should the head of the Jewish Studies department do?  Should he burn the books or donate them to the university library?

The reason why he said he did not want to donate these books to the library was because he did not want to accidentally ‘infect’ students with anti-Semitism or neo-Nazism.  He pointed out that students tend to take books in the library at face value and will cite them in their papers without thinking about whether or not it is a credible source.  This is a valid point; many students do this (though not all by any means).  But is hiding books we do not like the best way to deal with this problem?

Hiding books that we do not like or that we think are ‘dangerous’ is a disservice, especially to students.  The point of an education is to learn how to tell the bull crap from the truth.  If we never give students the opportunity to judge a book for themselves, how will they ever learn?  My professor in response to this question assured me that “they can go to me!”  Ignoring the fact that this sounds disturbingly like my professor is suggesting that he should do all our thinking for us, what happens when the students graduate and can no longer go to my professor every time they need a source evaluated?  How will we be able to evaluate sources such as newspapers and television broadcasts in the real world?

I understand that not all students graduate with majors that emphasize learning how to evaluate sources.  A history student spends a lot more time learning how to find and judge credible sources than a nursing student, who focuses on practical skills.  Does a nursing major really need to be put through the risk of misreading a source just so that she can learn how to judge what is true?  Yes, absolutely.  The university has failed its students if they graduate without ever learning how to think for themselves.  No matter what we decide to do with our lives, if we never learn how to think critically and question what we are exposed to, we will be doomed to flail through life at the mercy of those who know better.

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