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Guest Post by: Jeremy Adams
In many ways, the job of a high school teacher now encountering the first fully digitalized student generation has been tossed on its head. No longer are we teachers the depositories of information in civil society. No longer are we the keepers of important knowledge and insight. Students can access the entire corpus of human knowledge in a few clicks of a mouse. This begs the question: What are the consequences for educators, in general, and more specifically for my classroom, how do these technological trends impact the process of citizenship formation?
The answers are probably much different from the headlines (and policy-makers) that declare with great fanfare that technology will save education and even democracy itself. This optimistic view is that the teenage cupidity for attention feeds and promotes the promise of mature citizenship. Students, the argument goes, have learned at a young age to mingle in the virtual public square with their texts, tweets, and posts. As they mature, the grand democratic hope is that the digital fodder of youth will morph into political debate and democratic discourse. Political engagement will no longer occur exclusively on editorial pages and during network news broadcasts but on a familiar digital terrain my student have traversed for most of their lives.
So why does the civics teacher in me smell something rotten when conventional wisdom is that this perpetual interconnection feeds the American tradition of diversity, that the more my students can share their perspectives and express their opinions, the more likely it is that they will understand one another in a meaningful and democratic manner? Because, quite simply, their technology can’t tell them what to do with the information they access. Their technology might be spiffy and fast, granted, but it can’t give an account of the transformative power of reading Jefferson’s letters or Lincoln’s speeches for the first time—at least not in the way a teacher standing in front of the classroom can. The Internet has given our students access to the entire world, yet they can’t possible understand or consume all of it.
A civics educator’s task is two-fold: to impassion students to pursue individual claims of justice while simultaneously empowering them to collectively “get things done.” Unfortunately, this is only accomplished by a citizenry that possesses a set of intellectual and civic habits lacked by most of my students. My argument, sadly, is that a generation obsessed with ubiquitous interconnection doesn’t just love expression, but feeds itself through a vapid and shallow reaction to what has already been expressed.
This deficiency has nothing to do with a lack of intelligence or potential on their part; no, their problem stems from living in a generation that champions the speed of communication over the quality of one’s ideas. They live in a world that “streams” guttural responses, champions “real-time” reactions, and occupies virtual “chat rooms.” Theirs is an orbit of communication that celebrates a decentralization of opinion making instead of listening to those who actually study and think before responding to the events of the day.
And yet, a substantive form of citizenship requires more than simply picking a side in a voting booth or posting funny political posters on one’s Facebook page and encouraging responses from “friends.” It means appreciating differences but acting to perpetuate consensus. It means acknowledging that a divided country can only govern itself when it rocks the cradle of principled compromise.
Principled compromise, however, is not propagated by a cyber-reality that rewards terse tweets and partisan posts. My students are very bright and many of them are hard-working, yet they lack an appreciation for the drama of democracy itself, or to put it another way, the arduousness of building consensus in a pluralistic society.
Sadly, it strikes them as odd that the Senate galleries would be brimming with excitement at the prospect of listening to senators such as Daniel Webster and Henry Clay speak for hours on end in the mid 1800’s or that audiences were enthralled by the hours of debate between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas during the Illinois Senate race of 1858. In short, “The Golden Age of Oratory” wouldn’t be so golden to them. It is important to remember that Webster’s most famous speech is a “Reply” to a fellow senator, Robert Hayne of South Carolina. Lincoln and Douglas weren’t just delivering political platitudes for hours on end, but were actually listening to one another as the hours and debates added up. My students are adept at expressing a view, but I rarely hear a thoughtful reply.
I want my students to tell me that once-in-a-while they now understand a fresh perspective because of a conversation, a class, or an article they have read, something that shows me they are capable of being molded by measured argumentation, something that shows me they possess a nimbleness of mind that is the central feature of a democratic demeanor. Even my best students who are virtuosos of mass media often fail to realize that being informed is only half the struggle. Democratic citizenship asks its citizens to remove themselves from the world to consider what to make of it beyond a knee-jerk retort. If one encounters the daily storms of the political world (this faux scandal or that inconsequential gaffe) with only a dull and shallow throb of simply “liking” or “disliking” what one sees, then the high-minded words we frame in a civics classroom—justice, fairness, liberty—will devolve into nothing but a meandering form of political nihilism. In a hurried and trivial world without genuine reflection and deeper study (what the classroom and teachers are supposed to achieve), there can be no political truth, only a cornucopia of political perspectives and reflexes lost to the twilight of the latest news cycle. For my own part, I hope to teach my students an eternal truth echoed by the Periclean Greeks two millennia ago: democratic vitality only flows from educated and engaged citizenship. De Tocqueville, Mill, and Madison might be old names for a generation obsessed with mastery over the latest and greatest.
And yet, I hope to raise the pulse of their patriotism from the conventional perch of a high school classroom.
Who knows if I will succeed? But this much is certain: national renewal is a faint hope unless students can flourish in a classroom.