While we recognize the limitations of any singular blog post’s ability to answer big questions like the ones we’re asking, our intention is not to tell you everything there is to know about this issue, but rather to open up a space for conversation, reflection, curiosity, and a consideration of all the other questions this one question sets in motion.
How Did We Get Here?
When I taught 3rd grade in Denver, Colorado, on my drive to work I would often see sleeping bags lining the streets, in shapes that made it hard to determine if there was a human form somewhere lost inside. Each day as I was stopped at a red light looking into these shapes, the sky just beginning to glow with morning light, I would think of the future of the kids in my class: the world they have inherited, the social and civic moment they are living through, and the reality that for my students and for millions of children across this country, education is failing to prepare them to inherit this democracy and to navigate the uncertain future that lies ahead.
In the aftermath of the January 6th storming of the United States Capitol, there seems to be a lingering shock and disbelief hanging in the air that such an event could happen here, in what some say is one of the strongest democracies in the world. What has most surprised me, however, is how few are drawing the connections among the civic crisis we are living through, the toxicity of our media landscape, and the decline in the democratic values underpinning our public education institutions over the last four decades.
The idea of democracy, going all the way back to the debates of Plato and Socrates, has always relied upon an educated and informed populace, brought to life by discerning voters capable of telling the difference between truth and dogma, fact and fiction, demagogues and decent politicians. In the United States, we have a rich history and tradition of valuing and protecting this relationship. Thinkers like Horace Mann in the mid-late 1800s and John Dewey in the early 1900s, catalyzed the public education movement in this country, the intention of which was to harness large-scale education as a democratic mechanism. They envisioned a system that would give people such possession of themselves and their minds that they would be capable of living in a way that would uphold and strengthen democratic values – values like critical thinking, dialogue, truth, participation, and justice – and that would empower citizens as active agents capable of shaping their government, their society, and their world, rather than passive, easily swayed and confused bystanders unable to defend their individual and collective interests.
While this was the original intention animating public education in the United States, I would argue we’ve fallen very far from this ideal over the last four decades, and this hasn’t been incidental. It has been the direct result of both state and federal policy changes in education that have embraced values of standardization, linearity, obedience, and economic utility over those more lofty and intangible values that safeguard democracy. And in parallel to this shift in values, we have also seen a substantial increase in government funding to private and charter schools, fueling competition among institutions that should be working towards a common purpose, and skewing the educational landscape in such a way that it no longer ensures access to high quality education for all, setting the stage for the incredible inequality we see in our society today.
This decline was already in progress before we entered into what is being described as ‘the digital age’. If you combine this decline in our public and civic education system with the solidification of an online informational ecosystem inarguably designed to distort, outrage, polarize, and spread misinformation, it creates a very difficult environment for people to be able to make sense of what is going on; to detect logical contradictions, blatant falsehoods, dogmatic reasoning, and corruption; to figure out where and how they fit into this country and who to blame for the difficulties in their lives – all of which ultimately obstructs citizens’ ability to act as competent and informed voters capable of fulfilling their democratic responsibilities.
It is hard to argue with the reality that many people in this country are suffering, and many are deeply confused and misguided about why – the combination of which can easily manifest as hate. I’ve heard a lot of people identify the events of January 6th as at base a manifestation of the currents of white supremacy that flow through America’s veins, which is certainly a reality and almost definitely played a role in the events of January 6th. However, I would argue that if you look even deeper beneath that explanation you will find that this is at base a manifestation of deep individual and collective suffering; of unchecked conspiratorial thinking, ignorance, and profoundly incoherent narratives; and of our inability as a society to equip each citizen, in every part of this country – rural, urban, poor, rich, black, white or otherwise – with the cognitive defenses required to be able to reason through this uniquely confusing and difficult period of history, and find our place within it.
There is no way, short of violating free speech, to ensure that bad and dangerous ideas won’t be thought, discussed, and circulated throughout our society, particularly given the way that social media amplifies outrage and misinformation while allowing for anonymity. This is going to be a fact of life in the digital age until we get serious about implementing the systematic regulation of online platforms. The only way we can truly protect ourselves, our society, and our civic institutions from being held captive by falsehoods, dogma, and delusion is to build our internal cognitive defenses in such a way that each individual is capable of filtering out lies from truth, and of reasoning through propositions in such a way that logic will prevail as the only natural conclusion. The only means by which we can achieve this is education, and more specifically media literacy education.
Last week I watched the second round of impeachment proceedings being brought by the House of Representatives against Donald Trump. As the votes trickled in, following neat and seemingly inviolable party lines, I began to worry that there is no event, action, or threat to our democracy capable of sufficiently shaking those politicians held hostage by ideological conformity and egocentrism to cross this imaginary party line, and I wondered about the millions of citizens that voted these people into office. The neglect of the relationship between education and democracy is in my view our greatest contemporary failure, and it has led us precisely and inevitably to this moment of profound civic crisis. Trump has been a stress test for our democracy, and if we expect it to hold as we move forward into the Biden Administration and into what will surely be a challenging and uncertain future in the United States, we need to learn this vital lesson.
actions to take
Reflect upon your own education and/or the education of your children. Challenge yourself to fill in any gaps in your knowledge of civics, social studies, sociology, and government.
Think about what you can do to ensure that the schools in your community prioritize media literacy, critical thinking, and civics in their curriculum choices. Contact your local school board to make sure your voice is heard.
Take pride in being an informed and intelligent citizen capable of holding your elected officials accountable. Encourage those around you to do the same.
Don’t let falsehoods, misinformation, or conspiracy theories be spoken without challenge. Use your voice in pursuit of the truth.
Reflect on how your community has neglected the relationship between education and democracy.
questions to consider
Who benefits from a society filled with citizens who don’t know their rights, don’t understand how their government operates, and aren’t encouraged to think deeply and critically about the society in which they live?
Think about how the idea of “divide and conquer” is playing out in the ways in which narratives are weaponized and mis/disinformation and outrage are perpetuated online. Who benefits from this?
Checkology: Checkology’s lessons and other resources show you how to navigate today’s challenging information landscape.