Sunday, August 25, 2019

Welcome to Bayou Teche Dispatches. . . .

Source: The (New York) Weekly Graphic, 18 April 1874.

Bayou Teche Dispatches is a collection of my writings about south Louisiana history and culture. Often it consists of material I could not use in my books for one reason or another, but which I nonetheless found fascinating. I hope you enjoy reading these articles as much as I enjoyed researching and writing them.

If you publish information from these articles, however, please remember to cite this blog as your source and, if applicable, to supply a return link. Please do not repost articles in their entireties, but short block quotations that fall within range of "fair use" are acceptable.
~ Shane K. Bernard


to purchase the author's books 
and other south Louisiana history items. . . .

Table of Contents

 Of Cajuns and Creoles: A Brief Historical Analysis
A look at the relationship between these two ethnic groups

 Portrait of a Cajun Woman: Andonia Thibodeaux 
of Bayou Tigre
An old tin-type photograph leads to a literary find

 Another Civil War Gunboat on the Teche: The U.S.S. Glide, aka Federal Gunboat No. 43

A legal document reveals the presence of one more gunboat on the bayou

 Now Available: My New Book about Bayou Teche

A narrative history of Bayou Teche and journal of canoeing the present-day bayou

 A Railroad History of Avery Island

An article I wrote for someone else's blog in 2010

 Sur le Teche: Exploring the Bayou by Canoe, Stage 1

Port Barre to Arnaudville

❧ Rough Rider Redux: A Photo of Theodore Roosevelt in Downtown New Iberia?
A forgotten photo of Theodore Roosevelt in Cajun Country

❧ A Fiction Interlude: My Short Story "The Phrenologist"

A short story about racism set in antebellum New Orleans

❧ A Floating Dancehall on the Teche: The Club Sho Boat

A riverboat that became a nightclub and restaurant

❧ A Meteor over Cajun Louisiana: Window on Atomic-Age Anxieties

Confusing a meteor for an atomic bomb

❧ A Film Documents South Louisiana's Logging Industry, ca. 1925: Responsible Stewardship or Environmental Disaster?

Digitized film about cypress logging along the Teche

❧ A Glimpse from 1968: Historic Films Looked at Cajuns and Creoles in Epic Year

Digitized French films capture an important year in south Louisiana history

❧ Now Available: My Children's History of the Cajuns in English and French Editions

Buy my Cajun book for kids so I can pay off my credit card

❧ "Cajuns of the Teche": Bad History, Wartime Propaganda, or Both?

A 1942 film with excellent images, horrible script

❧ A Snake, a Worm, and a Dead End: In Search of the Meaning of "Teche"

Searching for the meaning of the word "Teche"

❧ Galaxies, Bowling and Swamp Pop: Johnny Preston and The Cajuns in Escondido

Examining a Cajun reference in a chain e-mail about old gas stations

❧ Serendipity and Fort Tombecbe: Cooperation between Historians and Archaeologists

Accidentally finding a map of a fort coincidentally excavated by my friend

❧ Notes on Two Nineteenth-Century Engravings of South Louisiana Scenes

Vintage magazine images of Cajun and Creole women

❧ Finding History Right around the Corner: Heroism on the Cajun Home Front

A nearly forgotten World War II landmark a block from my residence

❧ My Father's Childhood Autograph Book on the History Channel?

When Dad met Hank Williams, Sr.

❧ My Oddball Collection of Cajun Warplane Photos

Cajun-themed combat aircraft

❧ Elodie's Gift: A Family Photographic Mystery

An old tin type image given to me by a great-aunt

❧ The Nike-Cajun Rocket: How It Got Its Name

A rocket named "the Cajun"?

❧ Middle Name or Clerical Error?: Joseph Broussard dit Beausoleil and "Gaurhept"

Perpetuation of a historical error

❧ Debunking the Alleged Origin of the Word "Coonass"

Finding a word by accident that wasn't yet supposed to exist

❧ More on That Word "Coonass": A Labor Dispute Trial Documents Its Use in 1940

The earliest known use of this controversial word

❧ "To Err Is Human": Errata from My Books

Everyone makes mistakes

❧ An Old Bull Durham Tobacco Ad in New Iberia, or Palimpsests on the Teche

This vintage advertisement has since been destroyed

❧ Remembering Polycarp: A Cajun TV Show Host for Children

Everyone loved Polycarp!

❧ From Jet Fighters to Football: Origin of the Phrase "Ragin' Cajun"

Where this catchy term originated (as far as anyone knows)

❧ The Elusive André Massé, Pioneer of the Attakapas

An almost mythical explorer of the Teche region

❧ More on the Elusive Andre Massé, Early Settler of the Attakapas District

Revelations about him in a historical document

❧ La Chute: A Waterfall on Bayou Teche?

A waterfall in largely flat south Louisiana

❧ Gumbo in 1764?

The earliest known reference to gumbo in Louisiana

❧ On That Word "Gumbo": Okra, Sassafras, and Baudry's Reports from 1802-1803

More on the history of gumbo in Louisiana

❧ La Pointe de Repos — Early Acadian Settlement Site along the Teche

Colonial-era settlement near present-day Parks, Louisiana

❧ A 1795 Journey up the Teche: Fact, Fiction, or Literary Hoax?

It almost fooled me . . . almost

❧ All the Same Place: Isla Cuarin, Côte de Coiron, Île Petite Anse, Petite Anse Island & Avery Island

Evolution of a place name in the south Louisiana coastal marsh

❧ The Grevembergs, Early Cattle Ranchers of the Attakapas

When someone accidentally transposes two numerals

❧ Tracking the Decline of Cajun French

Research behind the language stats in my book The Cajuns

❧ The Secret CODOFIL Papers

I waited how long for the FBI to release these documents?

❧ Agnus Dei Artifact Found on Banks of Bayou Teche

A religious symbol turns up in the mud at Breaux Bridge


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Tuesday, August 20, 2019

A Tool for Fighting Fake News & Conspiracy Theories: Teach Critical Thinking in American Classrooms

One might consider the below essay off-topic for a history website, but I don't think so: as a professional historian I rely heavily on critical thinking skills, and do so on a daily basis. I honed these skills in both undergraduate- and graduate-level history courses (think Historiography, Research & Writing, and so on), as well as in a formal Critical Thinking course offered by a good old Department of Philosophy.

Ought to be required reading
for all future historians.

I regard that Philosophy course as the single most useful class I ever took. It has allowed me not only to gauge the merits of various historical sources (is a claim true? how do I know it's true? could it be false?), but to navigate my way through an increasingly complex world that floods me constantly with information, much of it questionable if not downright false. (My mantra: never believe any claim, particularly an extraordinary claim, at first blush.)

I offer the below op-ed essay — a critique, really — about how critical thinking is taught in America. Which is to say, insufficiently! This is to the detriment of our Republic (to the detriment of any republic, arguably), whose twined bedrock, reason and knowledge, are virtues impressed on the Founding Fathers by the Enlightenment. Critical Thinking should not be a religion, much less should it be a cult; it is in fact merely a tool, and one with limitations, that nonetheless can, when used in good faith, help to lead its users toward the truth.

Here is my essay on the subject. . . .


Search the Internet for the phrase “The Age of Fake News” and you will find no shortage of sources, reliable and otherwise, claiming we live smack-dab in the middle of that epoch. A search for “The Age of Conspiracy Theory” yields similar results. Granted, conspiracy theory and fake news are nothing new: think, for example, of the grand conspiracy theories of nineteenth-century America involving eastern and southern European immigrants, Roman Catholics, and freemasonry. As for fake news, think of the “yellow journalism” of later that same century, when the American print media helped to spark the Spanish-American War over the alleged sabotage of the U.S. battleship Maine — a tragedy whose cause, most historians now agree, can be blamed on an accident, not a Spanish mine.


An example of late-19th century "yellow journalism."
(The content of the paper, not its color!).

What is new, however, is the 24-hour news cycle coupled with the dynamism of the Internet and social media. Fakes news and conspiracy theory are now harnessed to 21st-century technology, enabling  canards to proliferate not only across the nation, but around the world, in a matter of seconds.

Amid its nonstop bombardment with facts and factoids, the American citizenry is left to sort out for itself what is fake news and what is real news — as well as what is sometimes legitimate, informed speculation and what is conspiratorial nonsense. Clearly, the citizenry is not up to the task. Just last month, for example, the Pew Research Center found that “Many Americans say the creation and spread of made-up news and information is causing significant harm to the nation and needs to be stopped.” Worse, noted Pew, “made-up news and information greatly impact Americans’ confidence in government institutions, and . . . [exert] a major impact on our confidence in each other.”

Even the nation’s most skilled Internet and social media navigators fall short when it comes to separating truth from fiction, and facts from lies. I refer to our purportedly skeptic-minded millennials. A 2016 study by the Stanford History Education Group at Stanford University found that "young people's ability to reason about the information . . . can be summed up in one word: bleak." Stanford described this particular lack of critical thinking skills as no less than a "threat to democracy."

But what exactly can government, public institutions, and average, ordinary citizens do to counter the dangers of fake news and conspiracy theory?

Fortunately, there is a solution, and a rather obvious one: teach critical thinking.

“We already teach critical thinking!” would no doubt be the knee-jerk reaction of many educational functionaries. Indeed, it is au currant in education circles to affirm the primacy of critical thinking in our nation’s education system (or systems, since every state runs its own public schools, and each private school is a system unto itself).

But a tremendous gap exists between the touting of critical thinking and the actual teaching of it in an effective, substantive way. After all, how many American college students ever actually enroll in a Critical Thinking course? (MindEdge, a private firm that teaches critical thinking skills, is often cited as stating that "three in five respondents [61 percent] report having studied critical thinking in college.” I find this a highly suspect statistic. As MindEdge has itself noted, respondents might have claimed to have studied critical thinking after only a passing, superficial exposure to the subject. A professor of Philosophy at a state university thus comments, “I even occasionally get students who think that they have studied Critical Thinking in high school. The evidence suggests that they did not learn too much, based on how they actually perform in a college-level class.”

What I mean by learning critical thinking is for college students to sign up for a good old survey of basic logic (often called “informal logic” because of its application to everyday life) — a subject for over two thousand years part of the Western core curriculum, otherwise known as the liberal education (a term having nothing to do, of course, with politics).

Again, a knee-jerk reaction by education administrators is likely to be that students already learn critical thinking in math, science, and other much-vaunted STEM courses. But how much sense does it make to study Critical Thinking solely through the lens of another subject, like algebra, calculus, or physics? Why not study Critical Thinking directly, as the subject of its own dedicated, core-curriculum course?

This is how to effectively fighting fake news and conspiracy theory (and unreason in general). And it sits waiting in the much-neglected Departments of Philosophy throughout American academe: the solution that would if not cure, then at least curtail the plague that beleaguers our nation. I say this because it is Critical Thinking that teaches us, as the hackneyed but still laudable axiom goes, “Not what to think, but how to think.”

Almost an afterthought I myself, as an undergraduate back in the mid-1980s, took a 100-level (Freshman) course in Critical Thinking. I went on to obtain a doctorate in History, and I work today as a historian (and writer) for a world-renowned company. And I can honestly say that during my twelve grueling years as a college student I never took a class so useful as that basic survey of Logic.

Frankly, I can’t imagine how anyone navigates today’s complex world, particularly after the explosion of fake news and conspiracy theories, without a basic grasp of Critical Thinking — without being able to identify, for example, when a politician, commercial pitchman, preacher, lifestyle guru, or others with a vested interest in convincing other people of something, resort to fallacies like the Ad Hominem, the Vicious Circle, the Slippery Slope, the False Dilemma, the Straw Man, and various other ruses meant (consciously or not) to deceive their listeners.

While Critical Thinking courses exist already, they are not required courses. And that is what I suggest we change: American universities should stop lionizing the concept of Critical Thinking in the abstract and instead make it a mandatory course for students of all majors. Students should not learn the skill through the filter of a math or science course where Critical Thinking lingers in the background, subservient. (One might as well try to instill Critical Thinking skills through the prism of Music Appreciation, or German, or Readings in American Literature: it could be attempted, but would it be effective?)

There are, however, skeptics, such as the Newsweek journalist who quipped, "I somehow managed to snag a desk in a newsroom without ever flashing my critical-thinking abilities. . . ." I strongly suspect, however, the journalist in question underrated his own reasoning skills: he did indeed flash his critical-thinking abilities through his very act of analyzing the concept of Critical Thinking, and with a healthy measure of skepticism no less!) What most critics seem to be complaining about, even if they themselves are unaware of it, is not the value of critical thinking, or the value of teaching critical thinking, but rather the logorrhea, the nauseating, vacuous lip service, paid to the subject that rarely if ever translates into real action.

The solution, however, is simple. Require every college student in every major to take at least one dedicated Critical Thinking course. And teach those courses in that most endangered of academic species, the Departments of Philosophy. Teach those students how to spot the major fallacies, and how to construct a sound and valid argument, how to determine if we really know what we think we know — not only for their own betterment, but for the betterment of our country. 

Just teach the class!

________

Sources:

Istvan S. N. Berkeley, Philosophy and Cognitive Science, University of Louisiana at Lafayette, to Shane K. Bernard, 10 July 2019, email communication.

Frank Connolly, Director of Communications and Research, MindEdge, to Shane K. Bernard, 10 July 2019, email communication.

Amy Mitchell et al., "Many Americans Say Made-Up News Is a Critical Problem That Needs To Be Fixed," Pew Research Center, 5 June 2019, https://www.journalism.org/2019/06/05/many-americans-say-made-up-news-is-a-critical-problem-that-needs-to-be-fixed/, accessed 31 July 2019.

Alexander Nazaryan, "You're 100 Percent Wrong about Critical Thinking," Newsweek, 14 August 2015, https://www.newsweek.com/youre-100-percent-wrong-about-critical-thinking-362334, accessed 10 July 2019.

Stanford History Education Group, "Evaluating Information: The Cornerstone of Civic Online Reasoning," 22 November 2016, Stanford University, https://stacks.stanford.edu/file/druid:fv751yt5934/SHEG%20Evaluating%20Information%20Online.pdf, accessed 10 July 2019.