Overhauling one high-school subject is our best hope for the future of democracy

It’s time.
It’s time.
Image: Unsplash/JJ Thompson
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

Home economics used to teach millions of high schoolers the basics of nutrition and how to balance a checkbook. For the sake of American democracy, tomorrow’s kids must get an education in fake-news detection and online citizenship.

Preparing young people to be responsible citizens is one of the main reasons we have a public education system in the first place. In making his case for primary education, Thomas Jefferson argued for the need “to give every citizen the information he needs…to enable him to calculate for himself…to understand his duties to his neighbors and country…and in general, to observe with intelligence and faithfulness all the social relations under which he shall be placed.”

Despite heroic efforts, teachers in our public-school system struggle to instill these values in a hyper-polarized world where students are Snapchatting selfies under their desks, picking sides in partisan Twitter wars, and cross-posting Pepe the Frog memes. Amid profound social, cultural, and technological transformations, we must change how we prepare kids for civic life.

Ten years ago, today’s 17 year olds were in kindergarten, smartphones didn’t exist, and Facebook was less than 1% the size it is today. In 2017, the incoming US president free-associates foreign policy on Twitter and online hate mobs overwhelm many attempts at rational exchange. Kids now interpret reality almost entirely through smartphone-mediated interactions, form their identities and relationships through social media, and understand the world through the prism of internet logic.

To holistically prepare this new generation for life in an open society, what’s needed is a new model for high-school civics; one that integrates American history and government, critical thinking, media literacy, and digital literacy. The goal of such education should not be merely to instill understanding of our online civic landscape, but how to navigate and participate in it in constructive and meaningful ways: Not what to think, but how to think.

Invest in people, not platforms

Unfortunately, many of the people best positioned to lead the charge toward the next generation of civics education are currently preoccupied with how to get machines to sort out the problem for us. For example, the tech cognoscenti are calling for more active management of fake news on social media. This is an understandable impulse: The internet seems to have created, or at least amplified, a lot of the problems in our political culture—so perhaps the internet can solve them. Eli Parisier (coiner of the term “filter bubble”) recently led a high-powered brainstorm about these kinds of technical solutions to the fake news problem.

But given that political news and opinion are now made and understood through social information flows, calling for Facebook to play epistemological cop is the essence of Einstein’s famous quip, “We can not solve our problems with the same level of thinking that created them.” In other words, we’re not going to unscramble our politics by asking Menlo Park engineers to tinker with user interfaces or algorithms. Real solutions require us to adapt and change ourselves—and one of the best places to effect this change is through public education.

According to the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, one of the purposes of civic education is to “foster civic competence and responsibility.” But there are currently no teaching frameworks that move us beyond the facts of government (“you have a duty to vote”) to the lived reality of today’s online participatory culture (“you have a duty to seek out the truth”). Incremental improvements at the edges of more affluent school districts won’t cut it: We need a national drive to renew civics education, new teaching tools and frameworks, and state-level commissions to see through implementation at scale.

Although civics ranks pretty far down in the priorities of most school districts, the good news is that all 50 states have social-studies standards that include some form of civics and government, and 40 states require at least one stand-alone course. There is also growing agreement that some baseline of digital literacy is an important part of primary education. For instance, after the 2016 election, one security researcher is calling for schools and public-service campaigns to teach schoolchildren to identify and defend against foreign misinformation online.

While they may be digital natives, kids are just as likely as their less digitally savvy elders to be duped by conspiracy theories, rumors and hearsay, state-sponsored messages, shadow puppets, junk science, astroturfing, and clickbait. The Stanford History Education Group is among the organizations leading the way on “online civic reasoning,” which they define as “the ability to judge the credibility of information that floods young people’s smartphones, tablets, and computers.” Their findings on young people’s ability to reason about the information on the internet “can be summed up in one word: bleak.”

The need here is greater than just doubling down on media literacy, however. As the first-born digital generation reaches voting age, we must move toward a mode of civics education that instills new consciousness and emphasizes agency and responsibility on the internet. Rather than shirking responsibility to computers and corporations, we must have the courage and imagination to see through a future in which every student graduates with all the skills they need to thrive in, and sustain, an open society.

A vision for next-generation civics education

What should the future of civics education look like? The answer demands new perspectives on what to teach and how to teach it.

A natural place to start would be to update the media-studies components of American government and civics courses with a new corpus, new history, and new set of lessons from the internet. Some of these could include the responsibility to verify information before you share it, the responsibility to develop a good media diet, and the responsibility to act decently online. Because participating in online political conversations can potentially trigger an avalanche of abuse, tomorrow’s civics educators should teach basic digital security practices, too.

American government and civics courses should also incorporate technology in ways that create more understanding and critical engagement. For example, the extremely cool B.S. Detector browser plugin is a “rejoinder to Mark Zuckerberg’s dubious claims that Facebook is unable to substantively address the proliferation of fake news on its platform.” It would make for a perfect centerpiece of a modern high-school media-literacy curriculum. We ought to bundle it, improve it, and make easy for teachers to build activities around it so that kids can develop online civic reasoning while using the platforms on which they already natively engage with current affairs. Students need to be taught to determine who created a message, for whom was it produced, and why.

A standard trope in current American government and civics classes is to ask students to cut out current-affairs articles from newspapers and write a few paragraphs in response. The idea is not only to assess students’ comprehension but also their capability for critical thinking and synthesis. As young people develop knowledge through more interactive media, we need to find digital equivalents for this task. Tomorrow’s comprehension assignment could be something like “Pick a hashtag and evaluate whether it is an organic conversation or one manufactured by a botnet,” “Learn about the attention economy by creating your own clickbait,” or “Edit new Wikipedia articles about current events” as a way of learning about distributed authority, consensus-building, and online communities.

Educators should also get comfortable with enabling kids to get into new kinds of mischief as part of their education. The experimental teaching tool NewsJack lets users enter the URL of any site they’d like to hijack—say, the New York Times, CNN, or Fox News—and create their own fake news stories and hoaxes to share with friends. Some may feel squeamish about encouraging kids to make fake news, but this kind of hands-on learning can tee up helpful conversations about accountability and trust, and help kids develop cognitive models for online readership and authority.

And then there’s video. With so much of the political content on the internet delivered in video form, we should make it easier for students to read and write with video. Instead of asking students to pen essays about media bias, we should enable them to remix slices of television and evaluate the spread of soundbites using new public-interest resources such as the Internet Archive’s Television News Archive. In the future, every high-school student should have the skills to wield video and have access to tools like Mozilla’s Popcorn, which gives video essayists a universal copy-paste for TV news. Youth media organizations like The LAMP are among those showing the way today in this area.

Media and politics have changed dramatically—so should the way we teach kids to exercise citizenship. The pressures weighing on the public-school system will likely intensify in coming years, and we will need educators, civic leaders, and technologists to be champions for a new approach.

Time for a re-think

It’s clear the bill is coming due on our failures to re-imagine civic education. If we don’t take action, all that we despised about the 2016 election cycle will be collectivized and entrenched for generations to come. We will guarantee a generation of cynical voters, or worse: adults who are indifferent to the basic norms and values of an open, tolerant, democratic society.

Reflecting on the 2016 election, researcher Danah Boyd provocatively asks, “Did media literacy backfire?” This is a fair question. After all, young people are now more skeptical than ever, and they’re quite prepared to question all manifestations of authority—nothing is true, everything is possible.

The reality is more gray. Media literacy has never been more important—but it’s only the basic foundation of an urgently needed rethink of how we prepare kids to be responsible citizens.

As America’s high schoolers take their seats for the first time under the watchful portrait of the nation’s 45th president, we should reflect on the value of teaching real critical thinking—the kind that goes beyond reflexive contrarianism or a lazy Google search—and hope that it will not be regarded as a radical act in years to come.