I taught Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets to my high school seniors. That’s the second book in the series.  Why did I start and end with this one?  As a teacher, I knew to teach what I love (I love the whole series!), teach what the kids love (I don’t know anyone who hasn’t gotten into any one of these books, regardless of reading skills or enjoyment), and, most importantly, teach a good theme or message.  High school seniors are about to leave home and jump full-tilt into the world.  In the 2000’s, that was a world that was just being introduced to social media outlets and smart phones.  Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets taught two important messages.  First, one of my favorite quotes from the series, which came to Harry from Professor Dumbledore, was  “It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.”  As adults we need to be reminded that it’s our actions that will live with us through our consciences throughout our lives, and each choice we make, whether small or large, is a choice between being selfish and being unselfish.  The other message dealt with Ginny Weasley’s pouring her heart out to the magical diary, unaware that Tom Riddle, aka Voldemort, was drawing her into his evil intents.  I would state to my students to always weigh information that came to them with two measures:  Who is giving you this information? and What is their intent on how they want you to think or act?

A democracy only survives with an informed citizenry.

That was almost 15 years ago.  Social media has gotten all-pervasive and more insidious in many ways.  At the same time, we seem to have become more indiscriminate about our informational intake.  These two lessons should still apply:  Who’s sending you this information?  and What is their intent?  I think a lesson that needs to be stressed far more to our elementary students is the difference between Fact and Opinion.  Many adults can’t distinguish between the two.  A class that needs to be taught in high school much more pervasively is journalism.  Most people who today don’t trust the “mainstream media” don’t realize that journalists can’t print anything that hasn’t been confirmed by at least two independent sources.  Watch a good news movie like All the President’s Men, and you’ll see news reporters tracking down great leads to get people to tell them things on- or off-record or on background.  They must have corroborating material like contemporaneous notes, newsreels, correspondence, diaries and calendars, film.  Their writing generally contains footnotes with contributing sources. 

The internet is not an edited source of information.  It is not copyrighted; it has no fact-checkers; it doesn’t rely on sources or data.  Wikipedia is not an encyclopedia.  It can be edited by anyone, with truthful, fanciful, or vindictive material, depending on the source of the writing and the intent of the writer.  All of the current disinformation about the supposed lack of safety of the Covid vaccine and the touting of wonder drugs like ivermectin (a cattle wormer) or hydroxychloroquine come from only 12 different people.  These 12 people’s intent is not to relay reliable information but rather to get their readers/listeners to buy their products.  They are making millions off their disinformation.  Cognitive dissonance is causing members of our society to believe the unbelievable because it fits into their perceived belief system.  When I was young, I would look at the headlines from the National Enquirer – things like “Alien Lands in Cemetery” and “Baby Cow with Three Heads Born on Farm”—and think, “How can anyone actually believe that?”  Even I, born in Pine Bush, NY, the “UFO Capitol of the World,” didn’t buy that.  Yet today, our friends and neighbors are buying into child-eating microchip-injecting one-world-order overlords trying to brainwash us all.

We need to get back to being more critical consumers of information.  We need to judge whatever bombards us by the two go-to questions of  Who’s telling me this? (We can add Are they reputable?) and What are they trying to make me think or do?  A democracy only survives with an informed citizenry.  In order to be informed, we need an adversarial press.   Let’s all use our news filter a little more wisely.

Now-retired teacher Christie Mahl relied on Harry Potter to teach journalism students to be critical consumers of information.