An open letter to students: Be a skeptic, not a cynic

(Editor's note: This was adapted from a speech to 600 middle and high school students and teachers participating in a Model U.N. program at St. Petersburg College, Clearwater campus, March 16, 2018)

Good morning. Your presence here today indicates that you are a young leader. Someone — an adult, I imagine — sees something in you. You are smart. Maybe you can speak well — or write well. You care about what happens in your school, your community, the world. Those qualities are more important than ever. Cheers to all of you.

Over the past month, we have witnessed something extraordinary in American democracy.  A group of bright and motivated teens from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, did what many people thought was impossible. They persuaded the governor of this state and its Legislature to pass legislation to limit guns and make schools safer.

All over television, all over Tallahassee, all over newspapers and other news outlets, the student leaders from Parkland — with knowledge, courage, and passion — held adults accountable for their actions and their inaction. They turned the most horrible experience of a lifetime — the murder of 17 of their classmates and teachers — 17! — into a social movement that is beginning to spread across the country.

On March 14, countless students across America — including many of you — staged 17-minute walkouts from their classes in tribute to the 17 who died at Parkland in protest against gun violence and in support of school safety. I assume some of those hundreds of thousands of students were just glad to get out of class for a while, but clearly a great many were passionate and committed to the cause of keeping students safe.

A march on Washington is scheduled for later this month.   

I am not suggesting that you should take a particular position on gun control, on whether some teachers in your schools should be armed, or on whether you should have to pass through metal detectors on the way to English class. I am suggesting that you need to be more than a spectator. Your involvement can take many forms, but it will require five abilities: to read, to write, to listen, to speak up, and to think critically. By “critically,” I do not mean “negatively,” but “analytically.”

That last skill — critical thinking — requires you to keep in mind for the rest of your lives things that you are learning now as a normal part of your adolescence. You are learning that not everything you see or read or hear is true. If you think everything you hear from a politician is true, if you think that everything you see on social media is true, if you think that everything you get from school officials, from teachers, from preachers, from parents — from me — is true, please think again.  

I am not saying that we adults are all lying to you. Not at all. We love you. We are trying to help you in countless ways. But you cannot take advantage of what we know — you cannot learn our good intentions toward you — without acquiring a certain frame of mind.

That frame of mind, that way of looking at the world, has a name. That name is Skepticism. It comes from an ancient Greek word. It is important that you know this word. Please write it down. It is as important that you distinguish it from another Greek word: Cynicism.

Let’s take an advertisement on television, paid for by a politician running for office. In it, he suggests that young people are more vulnerable than ever to violent crimes committed against them by illegal immigrants. The skeptic says:  “I think that might not be true. I’m going to check it out.” The cynic says: “I know that is BS because all politicians lie all the time to get themselves re-elected.”

A skeptic doubts the truthfulness of a particular statement and seeks evidence to check it out.  A cynic doubts the moral integrity of particular groups of people: You may have heard adults declare that all lawyers lie, all doctors are just in it for the money, all cops are racists, all Millennials live in the basement of their parents’ house. It’s not true.  Don’t be like them. Be a skeptic, not a cynic.

The truth — with a small t — is so hard to know. Over the past 40 years I have worked with thousands of journalists. In general, I have found them to be very hard workers. I believe, based on the evidence I have seen, that they go out, find things out, check things out, and report them in the public interest. They shine a light on bad things happening in the community: a troubled school, a dangerous intersection, sewage in the bay — so that these problems can be fixed.

Please don’t confuse Journalism with The Media. The Kardashians are not journalists. So-called reality and entertainment shows, shows created by YouTube celebrities, may be part of the Media, but they are not Journalism. Learn the difference. Look around. Find reliable sources of news.

Here is something else I know. Journalists make mistakes. Sometimes they make big mistakes. If they are responsible, they will publish corrections. They will look at what went wrong, so they don’t make that mistake again. But this is important. THEY ARE NOT MAKING THINGS UP.

They are not publishing what has been called FAKE NEWS.

There are, sadly, an increasing number of people — call them trolls, conspiracy theorists, propagandists, troublemakers from this and other countries – who are putting on Facebook or Twitter lies, stories that are meant to make a politician or a movement look bad. There is the biggest moral distance in the world between mistakes and intentional lies intended to poison the flow of true information upon which democracy depends.

One of the goals of all democratic institutions — not just news organizations, but schools and governments at all levels — is to answer this question:  Am I safe? Or am I in danger?

During your lifetimes, there have been many stories about school shootings in America, from Columbine High School in Colorado to Parkland in Florida.  After each shooting, students everywhere express an understandable fear about going to school. Would they be safe there?

You understand, of course, that it is not the job of the news media to report every day on all the schools in all the counties in all the states that were not victimized yesterday by violence. To the extent that news is about the disruption of our common life by extraordinary events, you will see reports about the darker aspects of experience. But our continuous exposure to what is wrong, what is hurtful, what is violent, what is threatening has this unintended effect: It makes us feel that the world, our country, our schools are much more dangerous than they really are.

The death of a young person is one of the great tragedies of human life. So, I ask you all, when such tragedies occur, when young people die, what is the most common means of their passing? Or, more pointedly, what should you be afraid of?

I believe what I am about to say with all my heart. Based on all the research I know — based on science, on statistics, on hard evidence — your school is a safe place. Parkland has shown there are exceptions, but your schools are already safe. As the Bible says: Be not afraid!

But, wait! There is danger in the world, my young friends. Where is it? There is a crystal clear answer. The danger is in your CAR. The most dangerous person in your life may turn out to be — not a crazed terrorist or mass killer — but your best friend, who is driving you around, at high speeds, while she is texting her boyfriend.

Skeptical, young scholars? Good. Here’s my evidence. After checking several online sources, including reports from the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, the New York Times, and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, I have determined that there have been about 175 college, high school, and elementary students killed in school shootings over the last decade. (That is not an exact number, but an approximation that includes different types of shootings.) School shootings are horrible, terrorizing, tragic, and we should do everything in our power to stop them, but that number, 175, represents a small fraction of deaths among teens in America.

According to several reliable sources of information, it appears that during that same time period about 30,000 U.S. teens were killed in automobile accidents, many of them involving some combination of drugs, alcohol, and/or distractions caused by things like texting. Want to save the lives of young people? Pay attention to violent crimes, of course. Pay attention to causes of suicide, please. But pay as much or more attention on dangers over which you have some control. You decide whether to get in a car. You decide how many of your friends will jam in with you. You decide if you will take a drink. You decide if you will put on your seat belts. You decide if you phone is on or off.

There is some good news in the statistics. In 1975 almost 6,000 teens were killed in automobile accidents. In 2016 that number was almost cut in half.

Experience the news of the day, and you might think that you live in a very troubled time.  We old folks have a tendency to tell younger people how much better things were “back in the day.”  We are not lying to you, but we are wrong. A new book by Harvard scholar Steven Pinker, "Enlightenment Now," argues persuasively that things have never been better.  And I agree. No rational person would choose to live in an earlier time. Want to join King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table? Chances are you would have died in childbirth. If you had lived, your life expectancy might extend into the 30s. My mom died three years ago. She was 96. Many of you, I predict, will beat that mark.

Life gets better and better only because people of sound mind and good will get together and solve the serious problems of the day. That is what you are doing here today. There is a chance that before I pass from this earth, at the age of 106, one of you — probably a girl — will become president of the United States. Start preparing for that job now. Because I will need you then, just as America needs you now.

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    Roy Peter Clark

    Roy Peter Clark has taught writing at Poynter to students of all ages since 1979. He has served the Institute as its first full-time faculty member, dean, vice-president, and senior scholar.

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