Monday, June 4, 2007

Can the Internet Save our Democracy?

"The Internet has the potential to revitalize the role played by the people in our constitutional framework . . . It's a platform . . . for reason." --Al Gore

When the constitution of the United States was written in the eighteenth century, it created a system of government that has proved itself for more than 230 years. The constitution was based on the idea that the people, informed by a free press, and freely electing representatives to national, state, and local governments, would be better able to meet the needs of our country than any dictatorship or monarchy ever could.

In order for a democracy to function, it requires an informed and educated electorate. In the past that was guaranteed through the freedom of the press provision of the first amendment of the Constitution and later by universal compulsory education, which helped us build an educated electorate as we marched toward universal suffrage. But "freedom of the press" 230 years ago had a decidedly different meaning than it does today. Back then it could be taken quite literally--freedom of the printing press, which was the source of just about everything anybody ever read at the time.

In the twenty-first century, however, much has changed. Our court systems have done a decent job of protecting our freedoms as technology has advanced--I am not here to argue that the government is violating our rights or censoring our news. However, a different threat to our democracy came from a direction that the people of the eighteenth century could not possibly have anticipated--the rise of the corporate conglomerate and the mass media. Almost all of the television, radio, and print news that we read comes from an increasingly tiny list of corporate owners--even the non-fiction books we read are published by just a handful of publishers who are owned by major corporations.

These companies control the information we receive every day. The most extreme example of this kind of censorship came when MoveOn.org tried to purchase a thirty-second spot during the 2004 Super Bowl. This may seem petty, but keep in mind that while a presidential debate on substantive issues rarely affects the polls one way or the other, a well-run television ad campaign can easily shift a candidate 10% one way or the other (as one prominent politician has personally observed in his numerous campaigns and documented in his new book).

By itself, this is a big enough problem, but as this blog testifies--the truth is out there. If you look hard enough you can worm your way through the dung pile and get a glimpse of what's really going on. But how many people in this country still care enough to try?

The greatest current threat to our democracy is willful ignorance. It's incomprehensible to people of just about any other time in history or place on Earth--the idea that a group of people with a world of information at their fingertips would purposefully, intentionally, and even with a certain flair of pride, willfully and knowingly ignore that information is mind boggling.

According to the most recent Harris polls, 47 percent of Americans believe that Saddam Hussein helped plan and support the hijackers who attacked the U.S. on September 11, 2001 (up six percentage points from November), 44 percent actually believe that several of the hijackers who attacked the U.S. on September 11 were Iraqis (up significantly from 37% in November), and 36 percent believe that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction when the U.S. invaded (down slightly from 38% in November). These are claims that not even George W. Bush himself has supported--he has made it clear that to the best of his knowledge none of the preceding three claims are true. So how is it possible that so many Americans still believe them?

At times, I must admit, I have entertained the idea--first presented to me by a colleague who teaches at a high school just north of mine--that we should have a basic test for all registering voters. This test could determine whether a potential voter had the basic critical thinking skills and knowledge of basic civics necessary to participate in a democracy. This is obviously a highly problematic proposal on a number of levels. I don't seriously believe that it could ever happen (nor am I positive that it should). But at times I have to wonder whether a group of people who on average spend 4 and 1/2 hours of every day in front of a television--90 minutes more than the world average--have the mental capacity to participate in a functioning democracy.

This is where computers come in. You may think that the computer is just another form of television. That it creates a similarly passive, under-stimulated mental condition that hurts an individual's ability to think critically. But the science does not back up that claim--in fact, the opposite appears to be true. A recent study at Johns Hopkins University came up with some results that didn't seem to surprise anyone--students who had a television in the bedroom scored significantly lower on standardized tests than those who did not. But one element of the study that got less attention was this--students with access to a computer at home scored higher on the tests than those without a computer at home.

I understand that many turn to computers for pornography, pirated music, and video games. But most people who have a computer know this to be true--computers can be incredibly intellectually stimulating, particularly now that they are connected to the world wide web. People can now put their opinions out there, read other's reactions to them, respond, engage, explore, dig deeper into important issues, and find sources of information that simply aren't on the television or in the mass media. The internet is an invaluable resource--it has to be protected. For more on the fight to keep the internet free, check out one of my favorite blogs, shouting loudly.

The problem is that there is so much "noise" on the internet that it is often difficult to tell a good source from a bad one, or a reasonable opinion from an inane one. That is where we come in as teachers. This generation does not need us to teach them a bunch of facts or make them memorize a bunch of rules--they can access any information they want instantly from anywhere. What I need to do as a teacher is to give my students the ability to decipher that information, filter it, critically examine it, differentiate it, and understand it. If we can do that, we can help cultivate a new generation of thinkers in this country who just might have the power to save this ailing democracy.

1 comment:

Natalie said...

Jason, some interesting ideas presented here - can't wait to see how these weave into the context of your research question. The internet is the Guttenburgh printing press of the 21st century, and like that development will change the way people communicate. I love the immediacy of communication, wealth of information, and accessibility to ideas inherent in the format. However I also believe that for every piece of information there is a corresponding piece of mis-information. It is essential that our students understand how to distinguish between the two. This is why I believe it is essential that mass media be taught in every school - we want our kids to be astute consumers of all information. How DO we teach them the difference between the electronic versions of the Wall Street Journal and the Enquirer. Skillfully done, they look the same to me. So, first it seems that teachers need to understand and be able to recognize the difference. Speaking for myself, I feel like a VERY uninformed consumer. It looks like your research will be taking you along this path - hopefully you'll be able to give people like me some practical strategies.

On a sidebar, about the last post on the previous blog. This appears to be a prime example of a fatal flaw in electronic communication, in looking at the words it would appear we are at odds on this idea - but I don't think we really are. It may seem from my comments that I am "anti-technology" but quite the contrary. In fact I just found out this week that my grant request for a 'smart-board' in my classroom has been funded (now I have to figure out how to use the darn thing don't I?). My concern comes from what I see as an overdependence on computers as the "answer" to education woes. The computer is a TOOL. Albeit a great tool, but a tool nonetheless.

Although I suppose the development of software is intellectual property I’m talking about something much more basic. And this is not an isolated idea, this comes from conversations with a number of professionals in the field. The intellectual property I'm talking about is the creative innovation necessary for the development of new technologies at the hardware level. More like circuit design in computers. In conversations with research engineers engaged in computer design, development of test equipment for medical and work station applications, design of mechanical structures for buildings and chemical applications such as petroleum refining there is a concern that the crop of new professionals do lack the hands-on skills and real-life experiences that allow them to understand how ‘things’ work at the basic level. For example, a mechanical engineer who doesn’t understand the importance of a bearing – true example!

The United States is still regarded as a leader in problem-solving. My fear is that as we get further and further into the virtual world we lose our essential connection to the real world. There are computer programs out there that will allow students to do a virtual dissection on a frog. Although I see the value in this, I also know that there are things that we feel and sense in the reality that is lost in the virtual.

So - I'm not at odds with you. But over the course of watching public education as an adult for the past 35+ years the emphasis seems to have shifted. What I like about the required readings is their focus on reality, the acknowledgement that it is the TEACHER and not the technology that can really make the difference. I don't fear technology, I fear a loss of the humanity.

Sorry for the length of this post - but it's much more cumbersome to explain your ideas electronically than in person :)