335. Useless Arguments

Sometimes a child comes up to me and tells me, with conviction, something that simply isn’t true. As a teacher, I used to make a big thing of it. After all, truth is pretty important to us teachers. Colleges print “Veritas” on their flags and stationery – even etch it on to their stone buildings. So what good are we as educators if we allow untruths to go unchallenged?
Besides, there’s the matter of personal integrity. When we know what’s true, it just doesn’t feel right to allow inaccurate statements to lie there, unchallenged. Some people aren’t bothered by that at all, but a lot of us are.
I once heard from a child that there was an active volcano in San Juan, Puerto Rico. There isn’t. But he was born in San Juan, and it was important to him to be right about this. I went to the library with him. We found several books about Puerto Rico. Some of the books even had photographs of San Juan. There were no volcanoes in the photographs. But on the other hand, these books, which were full of all kinds of information, did not once say, “There are no active volcanoes in San Juan.”
It gradually dawned on me that this was not about volcanoes. I was dealing with a child who wasn’t getting many chances to be an expert, and he wanted to at least be an expert on San Juan. So I changed my approach. I told him it bothered me that the people who made those books didn’t even know about the
active volcano. You’d think they’d check it out. It was a good thing that we had an expert – someone who was born in San Juan.
If you’re the kind of stickler for accuracy I used to be, my approach to this issue probably bothers you. But as much as I’m devoted to truth, I’m also devoted to children. And children sometimes have priorities that are temporarily more important than truth. So I told him that I didn’t know who was right about this – the authors of these books, or this child who came from San Juan. I told him I’d never been to San Juan (which was true) and he had – that I was almost ready to take his word for it, but that I had to leave room for the possibility that even he could make mistakes.
He liked the authority role I had given him. He liked the fact that I was taking him seriously, not casually dismissing his words. He told me it wasn’t the authors’ fault that they didn’t know about the volcano; very few people know about it.
Now, he’s older, and probably more ready to believe books – less apt to stick with early childhood memories or fantasies. And he’s more able to rely on other areas of expertise. I don’t bring up the volcano issue. Probably, he’s forgotten the whole thing. And I think the truth has survived that episode.

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