By Timothy P. Williams
The political unrest on display in Washington, DC on January 6 demonstrated that we are a democracy in turmoil – a body politic flirting with authoritarianism.
We have to do something.
The atrocities committed on Capitol Hill that fateful day leave us wondering how such a thing could have happened and how we should deal with it. Recently, there have been calls for more patriotism, more civics, and even bills to ensure our young people understand how to preserve our republic.
A recent opinion piece from Bloomberg, Democracy must be taught in school: If ever there was a time to relaunch civics, isn’t this the one? by Professor Andrea Gabor, who bluntly described the insurgency:
“The riot was just the latest and most appalling proof that a large portion of the American public does not understand democratic norms. That is why this should serve as a sputnik moment for an ambitious revival of civic education as well as expanded information literacy training.
Gabor rightly stresses the importance of civic education, which was – and still is – taught in schools. She seems to believe, however, that the teaching of “information literacy” is missing. Indeed, it was before the internet age that the average insurgent attended school. Information literacy is now systemic across all disciplines.
During their formal education, rioters received civic instruction. The real concern is that they may not have received formal information literacy instruction.
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NPR has compiled a database of more than 200 people who were arrested for their actions during the insurgency. A review of this data reveals that the youngest is 20 and the oldest is 72. The average insurgent is 40.5 years old and went to school decades ago, before the internet age.
The average insurgent has never had the opportunity to be formally trained in how to tell fact from fiction online. Worse still, they have never received formal instruction on how to critically evaluate the ideas and information they discover online. Like today’s students, they received a civic education. Unlike today’s students, online information literacy was never part of their formal education.
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This is where the problem lies.
The greatest advantage of online information is that everyone can contribute ideas and points of view. The biggest disadvantage of online information is that everyone can contribute ideas and points of view, even if they are not based on facts or reality. This is how modern-day conspiracy theories are born and spread.
The inability to think critically about information online is why people succumb to conspiracy theories.
The most obvious example of this tragedy is QAnon and his followers. This discredited movement is responsible for amplifying unfounded conspiracy theories and misinformation that has prompted people to take such extreme measures as storming the Capitol.
The Q supporter rioters were attending school at a time when Professor Gabor suggests schools were spending more time on civics. Presumably, the rioters defied their solid civic education and attempted, at a minimum, to disrupt the constitutionally mandated transfer of power.
So it was not a lack of civic education that fueled the insurgency; it was a lack of ability to discern fact from fiction, factual opinions from opinions based on deliberate misinformation.
As a former social studies teacher, I can support Professor Gabor’s call for a systemic increase in civics and information literacy.
Our current political quagmire, however, is not well explained by current educational practices. Rather, we need to find a way to educate some of today’s adults in the nuances of discerning fact from fiction and thinking critically.
Fortunately, today’s students and recent graduates benefit from an education in the age of the Internet, and we must continue to emphasize civics and information literacy. It’s quite simple; the difficult task is to figure out how to make information literacy available to those who attended school before the Internet age.
We don’t have to worry too much about young people; they will save us from this nonsense. We should be more concerned about certain members of my generation.