Category Archives: Education / Youth

National Service

There are multiple reasons for the current unsustainable degree of American polarization. A primary one, as I have written repeatedly, is a media environment that allows people to choose the reality most consistent with their particular biases. Another is the extreme individualism of today’s culture.

The United States has historically swung between an emphasis on community norms and an insistence on individual rights. (We rarely hit the “golden mean” promoted by the Greeks..) Too much “community” and we live in a society that demands conformity and ignores fundamental liberties; too much emphasis on the individual, and we neglect important–even crucial–aspects of the common good, and what is sometimes called “civil religion”–allegiance to the American covenant that creates community from our diversity. E pluribus unumout of the many, one.

One of the reasons I have long advocated for universal national service is that programs like Americorp create community. Such programs bring together young Americans from diverse backgrounds and introduce them to the multiple tasks that demand civic collaboration and create a polity. I have always supported national service in the abstract, but during the pandemic, I had the opportunity to see it “close up and personal,” as the saying goes. My youngest grandson took a gap year with Americorp after his high school graduation.

My very urban, upper-middle-class grandson, raised in downtown Indianapolis, joined a group of young people from a wide variety of urban and rural environments. They were headquartered in Mississippi (address of headquarters: Confederate Avenue…) He had always been public-spirited, but he learned a lot from his Americorp teammates and the various states and environments to which they were deployed. It was an altogether salutary experience.

Given the fact that our national government is effectively gridlocked–unable to pass anything other than the most trivial measures–I don’t look for the establishment of a universal or mandatory federal program any time soon. But the Brookings Institution recently reported on the growth of service organizations at the state and local level.

Investing in educational and career opportunities for young adults is a smart bet on the future. And that is exactly what many states, cities, and counties are doing with American Rescue Plan Act (ARP) funds.

More specifically, they are directing portions of the $350 billion in ARP’s Coronavirus State and Local Fiscal Recovery Funds to create or expand service and conservation corps. In corps programs (also referred to as service or national service programs), members serve their community for defined periods of time, working on projects that provide clear societal value, such as building affordable housing, tutoring K-12 students, supporting public health efforts, aiding disaster response and recovery, and contributing to climate resiliency. In return, corps members earn a modest living allowance, gain valuable work experience, build skills, and, in some cases, receive a small educational scholarship. National service programs can offer a structured and supportive pathway into the labor market and postsecondary education, which is especially valuable for young people who otherwise might flounder. And they offer a solid return on investment: An analysis of AmeriCorps identified a cost-benefit ratio of 17.3 to 1. For every $1 in federal funds, the return to society, program members, and the government is $17.30.

President Biden’s “Build Back Better” Act–like so many other measures we desperately need–was stymied by the Senate filibuster. It included a robust Civilian Conservation Corp and other programs that promised a rebuilding of community and civic solidarity.

The continuing gridlock at the federal level doesn’t tell the whole story, however. The linked Brookings report highlights examples of how state and local governments are using  fiscal recovery funds to support service programs.

The list focuses on climate-oriented corps programs, but there are also ARP-funded service programs focused on community needs such as promoting literacy and stemming learning loss among K-12 students.

Much of the activity, interestingly, is at the municipal level. The report cites Austin, Texas; San Jose, California; and Boston, Massachusetts.

The pandemic illustrated another virtue of service programs: flexibility. During the pandemic, these programs adapted to meet the changing emergency needs. The report tells us that AmeriCorps and conservation corps programs “pivoted to address immediate problems: distributing food to people in need; serving as contact tracers; staffing call centers; and setting up beds and triage centers.”

As helpful as these activities were, the likely long-term effects of participation in delivering them will be even more positive. When Americans from all sorts of communities and backgrounds collaborate for the common good and work together to help equally diverse communities, they learn the importance of community writ large. They learn that not everything in life revolves around the individual and/or his tribe.

They are re-introduced to the American covenant.

 

A Good Teacher With A Gun….

Jennifer Rubin published a recent column that zeroed in on two aspects of American fatuousness: the Republican office-holders who, with a straight face, are advocating arming teachers, and the “journalists” (note quotation marks) who fail to ask them the follow-up questions that would immediately show how utterly stupid and dishonest that suggestion really is.

Rubin quoted the Secretary of Education, who enumerated several of those questions.

Those are some of the stupidest proposals I’ve heard in all my time as an educator,” he said on “The View” on Thursday. “Listen, we need to make sure we’re doing sensible legislation, making sure our schoolhouses are safe as much as possible.” He then mused about how arming grade-school teachers would work in practice. “What happens when a teacher goes out on maternity leave? Are we going to give the substitute of the day a gun?” Hmm.

Sort of like those proposals to lock all the doors–in violation of fire regulations. I guess it’s okay for the kids to burn to death if you are protecting them from gunslingers…

In fact, a lot of questions come with such a plan. For example: Should teachers sport their AR-15s when they have bus duty or lunchtime duty? Where do they store these weapons of war? In a locked case? Should the gun be loaded and ready to fire?
How could a civilian teacher access a secured gun quickly enough to take down an armed murderer? If you are going to arm teachers, should we outlaw the body armor that many shooters wear? Since 18-years-olds should be able to buy AR-15s, according to Republican lawmakers, why shouldn’t they be armed in high schools?

We can all think of others. And as Rubin notes, it is highly unlikely that Republicans actually want to arm the same teachers who they insist are indoctrinating kids into critical race theory and “grooming” them for homosexuality.

She makes another important point: where are the media interrogators who will ask those questions to the people proposing these dimwitted ideas.

 Interviewers rarely press Republicans to explain their bad-faith arguments. Instead, the media often treat ridiculous ideas respectfully and move on without follow-up questions. Perhaps TV hosts should start inviting these Republicans to discuss their ideas at length.

Until Republicans are forced to confess that their ideas would be impossible to implement, they’ll keep changing the subject and deflecting demands for gun legislation.

It is absolutely impossible to blame America’s continuing and escalating gun violence on anything other than the enormous stockpiles of guns in this country. Every other nation on earth has people who are mentally ill, people who are “bad actors,” people who play video games and people who don’t go to church–the usual scapegoats identified by legislators who don’t want to even consider keeping guns developed for the armed forces out of the hands of 18-year-olds.

What those safer countries don’t have is millions of guns and repeated mass shootings.

A FaceBook friend recently posted one of those inane memes–this one from crazy Clint Eastwood–insisting that the problem is not guns, it’s “hearts without God, homes without discipline, schools without prayer, courts without justice.” My oldest granddaughter, who lives in northern England, nailed it, replying:

Yeah, here in the UK we have plenty of schools without prayer, most people are not religious and owning a gun is very difficult. We have no school shootings. 100% it’s the guns.

What is so maddening is that everyone really knows that. Our sniveling, spineless legislators know it. The American public overwhelmingly knows it. Seventy-four percent of voters support raising the age to buy an assault weapon–and so do 59 percent of Republicans, according to the latest Quinnipiac University poll. Universal background checks are supported by 92 percent of Americans. And this isn’t just some spike in the survey research, triggered by the horrifying, continuing carnage–majorities have supported common sense restrictions like these for years, and the Ted Cruzes and Steve Scaleses of the political world know it.

No one on the “left” (i.e., anyone who wants government to exercise a modicum of control that would make the carnage abate) is proposing to confiscate people’s guns ( with the possible exception of the AR-15). We just want common-sense regulations of the sort that other free and democratic countries have had for years.

We want those sniveling legislators to respect us enough to stop offering pious bromides (“thoughts and prayers”) and moronic proposals (“arm the teachers”). And we want real reporters who will ask these embarrassing excuses for legislators the hard, follow-up questions.

 

Pink Slime

I hadn’t heard the term “pink slime”applied to the media before reading the following report in Talking Points Memo.

This is the tale of a fake news story, widely shared by a lot of smart people who so badly wanted it to be true that they didn’t care that it wasn’t. It is also the tale of the decline of local news in America, the wave of pink slime that is replacing it, feeding destructive partisan narratives about public institutions.

The story–which was written to sound like one of those overzealous efforts to compensate for structural racism–was that administrators at two Chicago suburban high schools would be requiring teachers to “adjust”their  classroom grading scales in the upcoming year. The adjustments were supposedly going to “account for the skin color or ethnicity of the students”. The story (from a rightwing outlet masquerading as a local news source) explained that the directive was an effort “to equalize test scores among racial groups.” Teachers would be told

to exclude from their grading assessments variables it says disproportionally hurt the grades of black students. They can no longer be docked for missing class, misbehaving in school or failing to turn in their assignments, according to the plan.

To suggest that people were outraged would be a considerable understatement. Had the story been true, the outrage would have been appropriate, but of course, it wasn’t. Not even close. No new policies had been adopted. A committee on grading and assessment had submitted an initial report, but it contained no mention of race-based grading or plans to grade students using different standards according to race.

This is where “pink slime” comes in. “Pink slime” is the product of a partisan propaganda platform well-disguised as a “local” news outlet. It’s named after a meat-processing byproduct used as filler—in other words, it looks like meat but isn’t.

When Talking Points Memo reporters looked for the source of the story–which you couldn’t even characterize as distorted, since it was pretty much invented out of whole cloth–they traced it to something called Local Government Information Services.

Local Government Information Services (LGIS) is the publisher of lots of local news media in Illinois, with titles like “Southern Illinois News” and “SW Illinois news.” LGIS is part of a much larger network of local news in multiple states. As local news media has disappeared “pink slime” outlets like LGIS have taken their place, relying on low-cost or automated content repeated across sites, and eschewing basic journalistic practices.

Just how big and how connected these local news outlets are is difficult to discern. In 2020, the New York Times counted about 1,200 connected local news outlets that had arisen in just 10 years.

Behind this empire of pink slime is Brian Timpone, a conservative businessman and former journalist with a record of plagiarism and fabrication. It is not just that his media has an ideological outlook, or that it frequently uses deceptive practices such as the story detailed here. They are also directly funded by conservative advocates, a fact that is rarely disclosed to readers. At least $1.7 million could be traced going from Republican campaigns to Timpone’s companies, but the actual number is unknown given the shadowy nature of the flow of political money and the obtuse structure of these networks.

The rise of LGIS and similar “news sources” has been facilitated by the near-death of local journalism and the closing of hundreds of newspapers that adhered to the norms of ethical news gathering. The fact that so much false “news” goes viral tells us that the supply of propaganda continues to grow, with phony “news” sources extruding a steady stream of propaganda masquerading as news–pink slime, pretending to be meat.

Local journalists with a sense of responsibility to journalistic ethics, their personal reputation, and the community they live in have been replaced by anonymous for-hire freelancers paid crumbs to feed the motivated reasoning beast.

As the report notes, people want to believe that these stories aren’t just true, but typical.

“But of course,” they type, and retweet. Even after they have been corrected, they might think to themselves, “Well, maybe this specific piece was exaggerated, but it is representative of a broader trend.”

The episode is indeed representative and telling, but of something that has gone wrong in our media landscape. When you give the benefit of the doubt to partisan fake news rather than professional educators, it is hard to take the whole “I’m here to defend education” bit too seriously. Our looming crisis in education is not runaway wokeness, which local school boards can police, but the willingness of those who should know better to reflexively denigrate the teaching profession.

America’s problems almost all come back to partisan, deeply dishonest media.

 

 

 

 

That Misunderstood First Amendment

I know that my constant yammering about the importance of civic education can seem pretty tiresome –especially in the abstract–so I was initially gratified to read Brookings Institution article focusing on a very tangible example.

Emerging research confirms the damage being done by misinformation being disseminated by social media, and that research has led to a sometimes acrimonious debate over what can be done to ameliorate the problem. One especially troubling argument has been over content that isn’t, as the article recognizes, “per se illegal” but nevertheless likely to cause significant. harm.

Many on the left insist digital platforms haven’t done enough to combat hate speech, misinformation, and other potentially harmful material, while many on the right argue that platforms are doing far too much—to the point where “Big Tech” is censoring legitimate speech and effectively infringing on Americans’ fundamental rights.

There is considerable pressure on policymakers to pass laws addressing the ways in which social media platforms operate–and especially how those platforms moderate incendiary posts. As the article notes,  the electorate’s incorrect beliefs about the First Amendment add to “the political and economic challenges of building better online speech governance.”

What far too many Americans don’t understand about freedom of speech–and for that matter, not only the First Amendment but the entire Bill of Rights–is that the liberties being protected are freedom from government action. If the government isn’t involved, neither is the Constitution.

I still remember a telephone call I received when I directed Indiana’s ACLU. A young man wanted the ACLU to sue White Castle, which had refused to hire him because they found the tattoos covering him “unappetizing.” He was sure they couldn’t do that, because he had a First Amendment right to express himself. I had to explain to him that White Castle also had a First Amendment right to control its messages. Had the legislature or City-County Council forbid citizens to communicate via tattooing, that would be government censorship, and would violate the First Amendment.

That young man’s belief that the right to free speech is somehow a free-floating right against anyone trying to restrict his communication is a widespread and pernicious misunderstanding, and it complicates discussion of the available approaches to content moderation on social media platforms. Facebook, Twitter and the rest are, like newspaper and magazine publishers, private entities–like White Castle, they have their own speech rights. As the author of the Brookings article writes,

Nonetheless, many Americans erroneously believe that the content-moderation decisions of digital platforms violate ordinary people’s constitutionally guaranteed speech rights. With policymakers at all levels of government working to address a diverse set of harms associated with platforms, the electorate’s mistaken beliefs about the First Amendment could add to the political and economic challenges of building better online speech governance.

The author conducted research into three related questions: How common is this inaccurate belief? Does it correlate with lower support for content moderation? And if it does, does education about the actual scope of First Amendment speech protection increase support for platforms to engage in content moderation?

The results of that research were, as academics like to say, “mixed,” especially for proponents of more and better civic education.

Fifty-nine percent of participants answered the Constitutional question incorrectly, and were less likely to support decisions by platforms to ban particular users. As the author noted, misunderstanding of the First Amendment was both very common and linked to lower support for content moderation. Theoretically, then, educating about the First Amendment should increase support for content moderation.

However, it turned out that such training actually lowered support for content moderation-(interestingly, that  decrease in support was “linked to Republican identity.”)

Why might that be? The author speculated that respondents might reduce their support for content moderation once they realized that there is less legal recourse than expected when they find such moderation uncongenial to their political preferences.

In other words, it is reasonable to be more skeptical of private decisions about content moderation once one becomes aware that the legal protections for online speech rights are less than one had previously assumed. …

 Republican politicians and the American public alike express the belief that platform moderation practices favor liberal messaging, despite strong empirical evidence to the contrary. Many Americans likely hold such views at least in part due to strategically misleading claims by prominent politicians and media figures, a particularly worrying form of misinformation. Any effort to improve popular understandings of the First Amendment will therefore need to build on related strategies for countering widespread political misinformation.

Unfortunately, when Americans inhabit alternative realities, even civic education runs into a wall….

 

 

Civic Education– One More Time

In a recent essay, Robert Reich asked a supremely important question: how do we educate for the common good? His answer echoed my own belief–reiterated constantly on this blog and elsewhere– that we need to do a much, much better job of civic education.

Reich began

I think about those 19 children who were murdered in their classroom on Tuesday, and feel the need to go back to basics — to the common good. Given the the difficulty of enacting sensible laws to reduce gun violence — which reflects in part the deepening split between Americans who believe in democracy and those who are throwing in their lot with Trump authoritarians — the question I keep coming back to is: what can we can do to rekindle a sense of common good?

One of the most important initiatives would be to restart civic education in our schools.

Reich anticipates the nay-sayers, who will undoubtedly point out that our public schools are under a fierce and unremitting  attack from the Right, putting  school boards, educators, and students “in the crosshairs of culture warriors.” But he suggests that– paradoxically– “this might be exactly the right time to push for civic education.”

Why is the time right? And why does Reich link civic education to the common good? What’s wrong with the status quo?

Among other things, the essay points to what is a hot-button issue for me: the widely-accepted belief that education is basically a consumer good–that it is indistinguishable from job training.

Today, most people view education as a personal (or family) investment in future earnings. That’s one reason so much of the cost of college is now put on students and their families, and why so many young people graduate with crippling college loans. (When education is seen as a personal investment yielding private returns, there’s no reason why anyone other than the “investor” should pay for it.)

As regular readers of this blog know, that equation of education with an investment in future earnings drives me absolutely up the wall. Not only is genuine education a far broader benefit to the individual, it is–as Reich writes–a public good that builds the capacity of the nation to govern itself.

Franklin and America’s other founders knew how easily emperors and kings could mislead the public. The survival of the new republic required citizens imbued, in the language of the time, with civic virtue. “Ignorance and despotism seem made for each other,” Jefferson warned. But if the new nation could “enlighten the people generally . . . tyranny and the oppressions of mind and body will vanish, like evil spirits at the dawn of day.”

Reich traced the history of public education, and the civic motivations of those who insisted upon its importance:

The person most credited with founding American public schooling, Massachusetts educator Horace Mann, directly linked public education to democracy. “A republican form of government, without intelligence in the people,” he wrote, “must be, on a vast scale, what a mad-house, without superintendent or keepers, would be on a small one.” Mann believed it important that public schools educate all children together, “in common.” The mix of ethnicities, races, and social classes in the same schools would help children learn the habits and attitudes of citizenship. The goal extended through higher education as well. Charles W. Eliot, who became president of Harvard in 1869, believed “the best solution to the problem of national order lay in the education of individuals to the ideals of service, stewardship, and cooperation.”

The essay concludes with what Reich calls the six elements of civics education. I particularly liked numbers 5 and 6:

Such an education must encourage civic virtue. It should explain and illustrate the profound differences between doing whatever it takes to win, and acting for the common good; between getting as much as one can get for oneself, and giving back to society; between seeking personal celebrity, wealth, or power, and helping build a better society for all. And why the latter choices are morally necessary.

Finally, civic virtue must be practiced. Two years of required public service would give young people an opportunity to learn civic responsibility by serving the common good directly. It should be a duty of citizenship.

A concerted emphasis on civic virtue might eventually change the nature of America’s social incentives, which now are disproportionately weighted toward rewarding greed and celebrity. And–again, as regular readers know, I have long been an advocate for a year or two of mandatory public service.

As Reich concedes, there’s no guarantee that improving and focusing on civic education will lead to more civil and informed discourse, or make us more able to enact sensible legislation.

But it sure couldn’t hurt.