23 April 2005

Urban Legends: Old and New

At the beginning of each school year, I spend some time with my sophs talking about what "science" is and isn't...and how to tell the difference. What is it that makes evidence "good"? Is reading something on the internet make it a fact? Should you take at face value everything adults tell you?

Afterwards, their assignment is to investigate some urban legends, "old wives' tales," and some other miscellaneous ideas they may have heard (Were George Washington's teeth really made out of wood?). I provide a basic list and their goal is not so much to find out if the statement is true or not...but rather to find some sources and evaluate them. Their ability to differentiate between high and low quality research is what I want to see.

When they return to class, we continue to have some interesting discussion. If urban legends are rarely founded on fact, why do we still keep them "alive"? We talk about how the stories they hear at their age are different from when they were younger. When the stories were referred to as "fairy tales." My kids, for the most part, haven't thought about Sleeping Beauty in a long time. How shocking it is for them to revisit the tale as a teenager and realize it is a warning about engaging in pre-marital sex---that they should wait for "true love." They don't know that most of those stories were written to entertain adults. As the kids start to think more critically about the urban legends they hear now, they realize that the stories contain similar warnings about sex, good hygeine, and listening carefully to the wisdom of your elders.

Next year, I may add in this piece. You may have seen the story---about the possible connection between women who grew up with fairy tales and being victims of domestic violence as adults. Current versions of fairy tales have had the "moral of the story" bowdlerized and the "happily ever after" emphasized. Their role in our culture has been transformed. Does it make a difference in the schema we adopt as we grow up?

Mind you, the article from yesterday doesn't say much about the study itself: how many women participated, ages, socio-economic backgrounds, etc. These are the kinds of things I hope my kids would spot in terms of evaluating research. Looks like we'll need more information before drawing any conclusions on this one.

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