Von Drehle: ‘News literacy is a state of mind’

JOSHUA BOUCHER | Staff Photographer
David Von Drehle, editor-at-large for Time magazine, delivers the first morning lecture of the season at 10:45 a.m. Monday in the Amphitheater. Von Drehle spoke to the topic of “History, Her-story, Our-story.”

Envision a stake held firm in the ground. A long, elastic rope extends out from it, tied around a person. As that person walks forward, they are inextricably held in a cycle by the rope. The person does not move forward, but instead orbits the stake, the fixed point of all history. The fixed point is human nature.

That’s the analogy David Von Drehle, editor-at-large of Time, used to counter the traditional image of climbing up the mountain of progress during the first morning lecture of the season at 10:45 a.m. Monday, titled “History, Her-story, Our-story.” In it, he detailed how to maintain literacy and view human history in the information age.

“Human nature doesn’t change,” Von Drehle said. “Facts and possibilities are opened by our imagination, our kindness, our love for one another. But we also have hubris, pride, greed, resentment, tribalism and fear that hold us back and hold us to that point and send us through the same lessons, over and over again.”

He avoided the phrase “Those who do not learn from history are condemned to repeat it”; rather, quoting Time managing editor Nancy Gibbs, Von Drehle said “history doesn’t repeat, but sometimes it rhymes.”

Von Drehle got his start in journalism as a sports writer for The Denver Post. He received his B.A. from the University of Denver and later earned a master’s degree from Oxford University, something he humorously downplayed because although he studied  T.S. Eliot for two years, his degree was bequeathed on the condition he “desist in further studies.” Before coming to Time, he worked at The Miami Herald and The Washington Post.

Von Drehle focused on the Week One theme of “21st-Century Literacies: Multiple Ways to Make Sense of the World” by speaking on the effect democratization of information has had on news consumption. He witnessed firsthand the transformation of news literacy over his 40 years as a news writer.

“I think we’re encouraged to think of literacy as a test we pass in life,” he said. “Literacy is [no longer] an end state. Literacy in the 21st century is a state of mind and approach.”

Old views of literacy are simply inapplicable in a modern age, Von Drehle said.

“Literacy used to mean knowing everything there was to know, but in the current day, it is simple to find news on almost any topic imaginable,” he said. “The more valuable skill is deciphering the truth behind the news.”

He cited overwhelming statistics of Internet use. Seventy-two hours of content uploaded to YouTube every minute. Every day, 70 billion images are uploaded to Instagram and 500 million tweets are sent. To read every page of information on the Web, one would have to read 24 hours a day, seven days a week, for 90,000 years. 

With such an overflow, Von Drehle asked, “Who says what’s best? Who decides history?”

The academic approach to history, he said, has been to splinter it. He cited student essays and dissertations as examples of the increased specificity: “From Lineage Organization to Lineage Net: The Post Cultural Revolution Reimagining of Chinese Lineage Community” by David Bean and “Medicine on Trial: Professional Expertise and Medical Malpractice in Republican China 1912-1937” by Ryan McGivern Rossner.

These are not ways to understand history, he said, at least not in the way historical literacy requires.

History is large, complex, and not very nice, Von Drehle said, and has a habit of “resolving the easy stuff and leaving the hard stuff for us.”

But there are ways for humanity to be literate in this new age. Von Drehle told the story of his grandfather, George T. Love, a railroad master who participated in the both World War I and World War II. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, he volunteered for service and was placed with other railway masters to rebuild European transportation, ensuring food and supplies could begin to flow again.

“After the troops invaded, they followed,” he said.

In this way, Europe healed faster once the war had ended.

But, he said, this is not often the case, drawing the example of the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, which toppled dictator Saddam Hussein, but left a power vacuum that led to what he termed “the ISIS problem.”

Another example he cited was this month’s tragic church shooting in Charleston, South Carolina. The power of the victims’ families’ forgiveness, he said, led to the groundswell of support in removing the Confederate flag from state houses across the South. But it was only after over a century of Southern pride holding the flag up as a symbol not of racial hatred, but of heritage.

“You know, oppression doesn’t only hurt the oppressed, it degrades oppressor as well,” Von Drehle said. “Instead of recovering, the South wallowed.”

The cost of Jim Crow was over a century of economic depression in the 11 Southern states of that had formed the Confederacy. It wasn’t until the “breath of freedom blown in by the Civil Rights movement” did segregation and the apartheid state fall away, paving the way for thriving Southern metropolises like Dallas, Atlanta, Miami and many others.   

“We can’t look, in the 21st century, to history for answers,” Von Drehle said. “As often as it hands us answers, it’s going to hand us problems. But in history, we can find the spirit of forgiveness, determination, hope and most of all, humility. T.S. Eliot said ‘Don’t let me hear of the wisdom of old men. But rather of their folly.’ The only wisdom we can hope to acquire is the wisdom of humility.”

Q & A

Can we talk about the hopefulness of technology for a second? One of the things that you were talking about in your dinner last night with Nancy and Charlotte is how much smarter Charlotte was than everybody else in the room. Apart from the DNA and the privilege of education, is there an advantage this generation has due to the technology that have available to it to siphon through the noise and find the lessons that can constitute wisdom?

Absolutely. I am glad you asked that. I am incredibly hopeful about the experience that the young people are going to have as they grapple with all the historic problems that we leave for them. In historic terms, the change, as I suggested, that is being wreaked on the human way of thinking and communicating by technology, is probably unprecedented. You hate to say “historically unprecedented” as we circle around the pole where we are a foot from passing Gutenberg and the printing press and then another layer out there is, maybe, the invention of writing. These are events that utterly transformed human society and the way people live. I think that globalization events and unlimited communication is going to be that transformation. For me, it has arrived as an existential threat. I perceived the Internet as being personally targeted at putting my family and me in the streets, hungry and unclothed. From the moment it came along, I saw nothing good about it, but obviously that is not a winning point of view. The winning point of view is to understand that technology is going to democratize knowledge. It is going to democratize communication. It’s going to let everybody follow their dreams and the people with a positive, creative, entrepreneurial, questing dreams are going to achieve amazing things. I would love to be a young journalist starting out — not afraid of the technology but liberated by its possibilities that we never even imagined. Unfortunately, it’s also going to democratize those tools for people whose dreams are violent, whose dreams are destructive, nihilistic, and we are seeing that as well. But I come down on the side of hope because that is the best place to be.

If the time we live in now were boiled down or reduced to a few snapshots, how do you think they would be described? What are the most important snapshots in your opinion?

If we defined it in my lifetime, I am 54 years old, and I ask myself, “Is there anybody that I shared the earth with who I am certain will be remembered 1000 years from now?” That is one of the tests that can be applied.

Martin Luther King Jr, definitely, not going away. People are going to learn that story for as long as there are people. Not sure who else is on that list. Probably Neil Armstrong, walking on the moon.

The big event of this period is going to be digital technology and how that story unfolds. The big American historical event in the great man sense, will be the election of Barack Obama and whoever the first woman president is after that, the opening up of the presidency to everyone rather than a fixed set of white men, that will be an important trend. Some of the things that are most fearsome to us will, probably, fade into history. I hope that that’s what will say about what’s going on in the Middle East right now, that there will be just another sad story in a long history of a troubled place. Rise of China will be a part of that story, but it won’t be in as straight lines as we are sometimes lead to think about. In the United States, we tend to expect that the end is naive for us and for all our competitors is just unlimited upside where we see all our problems and none of theirs. We did that with Germany. We did that in the 70s with Japan and doing that with China now. And then there is a story I wish I live long enough to see play out is the story of India, which I think is going to be a wonderful tale, maybe in the second half of the 21st century but not quite here yet.

Nathan, who is 20 years old, asks: In light of your comments on the concrete nature of humanity and our being, how will the transformations in the output of data and access to the information change who we are, and I am reminded that we had a speaker last year who said that we are in an evolution of being cyber-sapiens. Would you comment on that?

Well, if that happens, and we become cyber-sapiens, leave out what I said about India because that’s going to be a much bigger and better story. I am skeptical that the miracle of human consciousness is exclusively a matter of ones and zeros, opening and closing of electrical synapses, obviously the model of the digital computer is a very good partial model for what’s going on up here. There are electrical connections being made, gates being opened and closed, we can see that, we understand that but there is a lot of mysterious stuff that goes on, up there in the web work. We were talking about this a little bit before we came out here. Dreaming. How exactly are you going to write the algorithms for dreaming, for poetic inspirations? Is it just the matter of one gate closing and another gate opening? Or is there a collision of different software programs, spontaneously interacting and becoming a whole new thing and how does that happen? I don’t think we are close to modeling that? I don’t think that the fact we can do electronic scanning of the brain has us this close to understanding how it works. Even once you figure out how it works, you haven’t build one to work like it. So, I am not trying to diminish the technological change that we are going through but the leap to say we have more and more powerful machines, therefore someday we will build a mechanical brain, I think there is a lot of space in between. I think it is John Maynard Keynes who said that how does an economist escape from a desert island the economist says, “Assume a boat.” I think there is a lot of that going on in the artificial intelligence community. Assume a brain.

If history has been determined by the victors, will the future of history be determined by the makers?

That’s a good question. The future of history, as I tried to suggest, is not going to be determined in the ways it has in the past because of this tremendous access to information. Everybody has it. The losers have it, the victors have it, and everybody in between has it. The bystanders have it. So there will not be an official history of the Syrian civil war, if and when that ever ends — God willing. Somebody is not going to sit and write from the perspective of Assad or ISIS or whoever the last combatant standing may be. This is because all of the data and all of the video, all of the tweets — all of it is going to be out there. And people will have their own access to it. That process that Plutarch applies to the history of Antony and Cleopatra is a selective process. Doesn’t mean it is a dishonest process, but it is a selective process. My history of Abraham Lincoln in 1862 involved learning a lot about 1862, but then I had to select what all went in the book and in what order. It’s a selective process and another person can come to the same material and make different selections and have a different history. Now multiply that by a 100,000 times or a 100,000,000 times and turns out that the volume of material to select from and the end result is that you don’t have definitive histories anymore. I have read that passage of Faulkner’s on Pickett’s Charge. It lasted about an hour, on a July afternoon, 152 years ago. People are still arguing about it, there is no official history of Pickett’s Charge. Like I said, it will be multiplied and multiplied. There is no official history of 9/11. I know what I think happened and I know how I would tell that story but that may not be the same story told on truthout.com.

What about “herstory”? Which women will be crucial to our standing of history?

There will be the political leaders, the women who fought for vote, who fought for franchise, who fought for sexual freedom, control over their reproduction, domestic equality over their relationships with men. There will be the great economic pioneers, business pioneers. Just as we know the names of Henry Ford and John D Rockefeller, there will be Oprah Winfrey, Carly Fiorina…why am I spacing out on the women who created eBay? The athletes will play a huge part. The astronauts. Mae Jemison will be here next week. In other words, step by step by step, the women who simply demonstrated in their lives that the wonderful differences and variety of human life are not determinant of how far you can go in it. Again, whoever that first woman president is to join Thatcher and Mayar and Gandhi, all the pioneering women leaders of important nations and then there will be times when those questions won’t even occur to anybody anymore. And that will be an interesting time as well.