The outrageous attack on the U.S. Capitol shocked the world, but the environment in which such violent sentiment was allowed to brew has been years in the making. The campaigns against mainstream media, against education, against acceptance of facts, and against reasoned compromise have created a vacuum in which polarization and extremism thrive. Our best means of overcoming these threats is the strengthening of two key pillars of democracy: education and information.
Preparing young people for the rights and responsibilities of life in a democracy has long been a core objective of public education, but many schools in disadvantaged communities, both rural and urban, are ill-equipped to do much more than offer the most basic education, which is not only inadequate to enable students to process the onslaught of conflicting information our modern society generates but also offers them little prospect of improving their economic status and achieving the American dream.
Increasing investment in education and making it more equitable will not only pay off financially via taxation on improved earning capacity but it can also help to strengthen our democracy, especially if attention is paid to the skills, like rhetoric, reasoning, and debate, that the ancient Greek founders of democracy recognized as necessary for its success. The in-depth study of language is essential to the understanding of rhetoric, so that we can understand the persuasive effects of language and see the relation between language and knowledge.
Language should be the basis upon which arguments are built, accepted, or rejected, not violence. We need to teach students that to be successful, arguments need to be grounded in logic supported by evidence, and that evidence should be supplied by reliable information sources. However, determining the quality of information on offer from the multitude of sites proclaiming to be fact-based and unbiased has become a skill in itself. Media literacy should become an integral part of all literacy programs as phones, tablets, and laptops become the major sources of information even for younger readers.
Popular social media platforms, like Facebook and Twitter, can and should do more to warn users of potential misinformation and disinformation, but they cannot be relied upon to guarantee the integrity of the information shared by all of their users. Even if they could, there will always be alternative social sites where lies and rumors can be disseminated, and we should always question censorship, as there is a very fine line between protection from disinformation and the repression of information. Far better to arm consumers with the tools to verify information themselves.
It may seem like a daunting task to incorporate these skills into educational curricula, but there are several new initiatives to sway policy and help educators share them. A new partnership between New America, Cyber Florida, and the Florida Center for Instructional Technology, in conjunction with the National Association for Media Literacy Education, is launching projects focusing on cyber citizenship, which they describe as “a state in which all individuals online have the knowledge and skills to check and verify the information coming across their screens, critically inquire about and seek evidence about what they are consuming, and create and share media messages in ways that advance dialogue and civil discourse.”
The hope is that this will become part of a larger national movement, but, if we are to ensure the continuity of democracy, we need to establish the principles of constructive argument, research skills, and media literacy as part of all literacy programs, in all schools, at all levels.
Daniel Ward, editor, Language Magazine