Addressing The Civics Deficit

I spent a considerable part of my academic career focusing on what I described as the civic deficit. Soon after joining the faculty–and especially when I taught undergraduate classes–I came face to face with students who had obviously gone through both elementary and high school classes without learning even the most basic outlines of American history or government.

An exchange with an undergraduate first acquainted me with the extent of that civic deficit.

I taught my classes through a constitutional lens. We studied the Bill of Rights and wrestled with questions about how those rights should be understood and applied today. I often introduced discussion of the First Amendment’s Free Speech provisions by asking students questions like “What did James Madison think about porn on the Internet?”

Obviously, the response I wanted was something along the lines of “James Madison never imagined a communication mechanism like the Internet”–which would then lead to a (hopefully nuanced) discussion of how today’s courts should apply the values protected by that Amendment to a world the founders could never have imagined. So I was taken aback when a young woman–a junior in college–responded to that question with a puzzled question of her own: “Who’s James Madison?”

I went home, had a very stiff drink–and for the ensuing 18 or so years, focused a major part of my research agenda and advocacy on civic education.

I relate this story because I am finally beginning to see evidence that others share my concern–and my firm belief in the importance of civic knowledge.  The New York Times recently reported that businesses in the U.S. and Europe have recognized the existence and significance of the deficit, and are engaging in efforts to fill the void left by inadequate schooling.

The article began by describing a German worker’s experience with online conspiracy attacks, and the subsequent eight-week program that helped her deal with the misinformation. The program was offered by her employer, described as a “multinational recruitment firm with 3,500 employees in Germany.” The company said the project was part of its own aim to “strengthen democratic values and make their employees more resilient.”

Across Germany, several hundred companies have taken part in such workshops, and similar classes are being held in other Western countries, including the United States. Businesses are finding they need to bolster their employees in the face of increasingly vitriolic political debate. Seminars on civics and democratic principles — such as the importance of voting or recognizing the dangers of disinformation, conspiracy theories and hate speech — have become a way to ensure healthier relationships at the workplace, and in society at large. In addition, reports show that economic growth is higher in stable democracies, and liberal border policies allow companies to attract skilled immigrants.

The instruction has benefits for employee performance; according to representatives of the companies. They say that giving employees basic knowledge of democratic principles and factual underpinnings helps them “recognize and respond to hate speech and misinformation” and “has made employees more self-assured in doing their jobs.”

Groups like the Business Council for Democracy and Weltoffenes Sachsen in Germany and Civic Alliance or the Leadership Now Project in the United States organize workshops like the one Ms. Krüger took part in, provide research and webinars, and support civic education and get-out-the-vote efforts — all of it nonpartisan. Most are nonprofit organizations, backed by independent foundations or a group of businesses that rely on their political independence as a selling point…

A key principle of the workshops was that they be voluntary for employees, said Nina Gbur, the organization’s project manager. They also have to be ideologically neutral, and not target any group or members of a given political party.

What is encouraging is growing recognition that the health of business depends upon the health of democracy.

“Democracy is the basis of our entrepreneurial activity,” said Judith Borowski, managing director of Nomos, which offers its employees civics workshops. “And if we no longer have democracy, then the basis for our entrepreneurial activities will also be very curtailed.”

Authoritarianism is facilitated by ignorance–the ability of political extremists to twist facts and misrepresent history in order to play on citizens’ fears and prejudices.

In Germany, media literacy has been a critical issue, while programs in the United States are frequently focused on teaching employees about how the government works and voting rights. But their basic premise is to empower employees to understand how their actions, both in and out of the workplace, affect the political climate and, ultimately, their own jobs.

These programs are very good news. So is the movement to expand civics education in the schools.

We have a very long way to go…


I’d Have Sworn This Was Satire

This isn’t satire. I kid you not.

The DeSantis administration has proposed a rule for Florida’s public campuses that would prevent the teaching of issues “that polarize or divide society among political, ideological, moral, or religious beliefs.”

Back in May, DeSantis signed into law Senate Bill 266, banning the state’s public colleges and universities from using public funds to “advocate for diversity, equity, and inclusion, or promote or engage in political or social activism.” But the law, which took effect in July, never defined those terms, instead leaving that up to the Board of Governors that oversees those state schools. Now the board has done just that. In draft regulation obtained by The Chronicle of Higher Education, the board proposes that the ban apply to all campus programs and activities in which the college or university “endorses or promotes a position” on “topics that polarize or divide society among political, ideological, moral, or religious beliefs, positions, or norms.”

This idiocy is the logical outcome of redefining education as job training–a belief near and dear to contemporary Republican hearts. Just crank out worker bees–and for heaven sakes, don’t let them learn anything from our human history of deeply-contested political, ideological, moral or religious theories and beliefs!

UnderS.B. 266, Florida’s public colleges and universities are prohibited from offering general education classes that “distort significant historical events or include a curriculum that teaches identity politics” or that include “theories that systemic racism, sexism, oppression, and privilege are inherent in the institutions of the United States and were created to maintain social, political, and economic inequities.” The law also bars public higher education institutions from using state or federal funds for activities or programs that “advocate for diversity, equity, and inclusion”—making Florida’s anti-DEI law one of the most restrictive of the dozens of such laws introduced across the United States. A DeSantis press release announcing the bill’s signing declared it is meant to “prevent woke ideologies from continuing to coopt our state universities and state colleges.”

I have a proposal: rather than this tortured effort to describe matters that will now be forbidden on campus, just reduce the bill to its essence: “Education will not be allowed.”

Think my snark is an over-reaction? Just look at the draft resolution:

In addition to defining “social issues” as “topics that polarize or divide society among political, ideological, moral, or religious beliefs, positions, or norms,” it defines “political or social activism” as “any activity organized with a purpose of effecting or preventing change to a government policy, action, or function, or any activity intended to achieve a desired result related to social issues, where the university endorses or promotes a position in communications, advertisements, programs.” “Diversity, equity, or inclusion,” meanwhile, “is any program, activity, or policy that promotes differential or preferential treatment of individuals, or classifies such individuals on the basis of race, color, sex, national origin, gender identity, or sexual orientation.”

As several pundits have observed, today’s GOP is the party of projection: the Florida effort to control what is discussed in the state’s classrooms is precisely the “indoctrination” that they pretend is occurring under “woke” auspices.

How does one teach the Crusades or the Reformation or the colonizing of America without noting the religious beliefs that polarized people living at those times? How do you teach philosophy without examining the contending perspectives of the philosophers, or discuss the role of women in politics without reference to the social “norms” that originally denied women the franchise? 

Are efforts to prevent rape on campus evidence of “differential treatment” of women? Speaking of “evidence,” what does evidence that a university is “promoting equity” look like? (I always thought “equity” meant fundamental fairness–I guess we don’t want that on campus….)

Education is typically defined as the process of acquiring knowledge and developing the powers of reasoning and judgment. Education may also extend to the acquisition of specialized skills needed for a career or profession, but it is usually understood to require the development of critical thinking, differentiating it from mere job training and from indoctrination.

DeSantis is well on his way to destroying higher education in Florida.

He began with attacks on New College of Florida, a public liberal arts college that was forced to alter its curriculum and programs. DeSantis installed conservative ideologue and education foe Christopher Rufo as a member of the college’s board of trustees, and together they worked to “remake” New College, which immediately lost more than a third of its faculty–a fact DeSantis hailed as permitting the “replacement of far-left faculty with new professors aligned with the university’s mission.”

I don’t know what that mission is, but it sure isn’t education.


Shades Of Texas

Back before the Internet and e-books, when school textbooks were hard-back volumes printed by educational publishers, Texas had a wildly disproportionate influence on the lessons those books conveyed. Even then, Texas was an anti-intellectual wasteland, but because of its size–and the need to standardize publication of schoolbooks nationally– it had an outsized influence on what went into the nation’s textbooks. (I often think we should give Texas back to Mexico, but they probably wouldn’t take it…)

Today, of course, school districts have access to a wider variety of educational resources, so the minority of Americans who are firmly opposed to giving children an accurate understanding of history or science have pursed a different tactic: educational vouchers. Vouchers–as readers of this blog are aware–allow parents to use tax dollars to send their children to private–almost always religious–schools, a large number of which use textbooks that are even less accurate than those once influenced by Texas.

Time Magazine recently reported on the most widely-used of those “textbooks.”

The report began by noting that the singer-songwriter who wrote the controversial “Try that in a small town” shouldn’t have been so surprised by the outcry the song triggered. After all, he’d attended a religious school that used

textbooks produced by Abeka, a publishing company that has long been part of the effort among conservative institutions to teach an airbrushed version of history—one that presents a narrow vision of a heroic, Christian, capitalist America. For the most part, these books have been limited to private schools and homeschools, though the founders of these networks always hoped to influence public life…

Abeka’s roots go back to the 1925 Scopes Trial, which pitted evolutionary science and expert academic knowledge against local control and religious dogma. After the trial, which produced reams of journalistic mockery of conservative religion, prominent fundamentalists like Bob Jones Sr. decided that America needed a new kind of educational institution, one free from the influence of mainstream academic expertise. He founded Bob Jones College in Florida (now Bob Jones University in South Carolina) to provide white conservative Christians with a “fighting base.”

Eventually, even Bob Jones University was deemed too “progressive” by religious fanatics, and a network of white-dominated private religious schools grew rapidly.

These schools promised to maintain prayer and traditional teaching. Most importantly, they promised a refuge from court-ordered desegregation efforts. These schools needed textbooks that would teach the lessons that parents who opposed such measures wanted their children to learn.

In response, Abeka expanded its publishing efforts. The company eventually published original textbooks in every subject, for every grade. The goal was to provide an alternative kind of curriculum, one that—in the words of one Abeka leader in 1979—would teach students to cherish the Bible, “master the three R’s,” maintain a healthy “respect for authority,” and develop “pride in America.”

As the Time article notes, Abeka textbooks teach a history that is “dramatically distinct from mainstream books.”  They omit the violence that doomed Reconstruction, instead explaining that it failed because many formerly enslaved people were “not prepared for political responsibility.” “The book does briefly note that “some Southern whites used illegal methods” and “terror tactics,” including forming the KKK. Yet, that mention of white terrorism is buried within an overall message of white victimhood.”

In 2019, Abeka’s texts were used by a majority of America’s 1,689,726 homeschooled students plus nearly three-quarters of a million students in conservative Christian private schools. It isn’t just Abeka–Hillsdale College and PragerU, among others, produce wildly slanted versions of America’s history, and have been making inroads in even public schools in Red States.

And it isn’t just history: textbook publishers serving these Christian voucher schools also produce anti-Darwin, anti-evolution. “science” books.

In 2010, NBC reported that Christian-based materials that omit any mention of evolution had come to dominate the home-school education market; that year, that market was more than 1.5 million students. As the article notes, most home-school parents want a “Bible-based version of the Earth’s creation.”

“Those who do not believe that the Bible is the inspired, inerrant Word of God will find many points in this book puzzling,” says the introduction to “Biology: Third Edition” from Bob Jones University Press. “This book was not written for them.”

The textbook delivers a religious ultimatum to young readers and parents, warning in its “History of Life” chapter that a “Christian worldview … is the only correct view of reality; anyone who rejects it will not only fail to reach heaven but also fail to see the world as it truly is.”

That is the worldview being supported by Hoosier tax dollars that have been siphoned off and sent to “voucher” schools by Indiana’s legislators.

And we wonder why educated people leave Indiana…


Life, Liberty, Language

Depressing though it is, I have to give MAGA Republicans credit for their ability to (mis)use language–their talent for appropriating/twisting the usual meanings of words in ways that resonate with with Americans who–for whatever reason–don’t stop to unpack what is actually going on.

We’ve finally gotten to a place where most Americans do recognize that many of the people claiming to be “pro-life” are actually only pro-birth. To be genuinely pro-life would require support for feeding, clothing and educating the children who emerge from those wombs; it would require support for women’s health, and recognition that interventions needed to save pregnant women’s health and lives should be determined by doctors, not politicians.

And I won’t even address the inconsistencies of those “pro-life” zealots who favor the death penalty. (I once challenged a colleague who was pro-birth and pro-death penalty; his response was that criminals had “forfeited” their right to continue breathing…)

Now, of course, we have “Moms for Liberty.” Liberty is another one of those words that has taken a real beating from the crazed MAGA crowd; I was particularly fascinated by the lunatics who claimed that wearing a mask during a pandemic in order to protect their friends and neighbors from disease violated their rather peculiar definition of “liberty.” These were almost always the same people who want government to dictate women’s  reproduction and trans children’s choice of bathroom.

Let’s just say their definition of “liberty” is highly selective..

The most recent group to misuse the term is “Moms for Liberty,” and like most theocratic and autocratic folks, “Moms” misuse the terminology. Their real motto ought to be “Liberty for me but not for Thee.”

The Brookings Institution recently issued a report on those self-righteous moms. The report included the fact that the Indiana chapter had been in the news for featuring an Adolf Hitler quote in its newsletter.

That quote–which they hastily withdrew after considerable attention to it from local media–would seem to confirm the description of the group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, which identifies Moms for Liberty as a “far-right organization that engages in anti-student inclusion activities and self-identifies as part of the modern parental rights movement. The group grew out of opposition to public health regulations for COVID-19, opposes LGBTQ+ and racially inclusive school curriculum, and has advocated books bans.”

Moms for Liberty is an antigovernment organization founded in 2021 by former Florida school board members, Tiffany Justice and Tina Descovich. Current Sarasota County, Florida school board member, Bridget Ziegler, was also a co-founder. She has since left the group, leaving Justice and Descovich at the helm.

Moms for Liberty and its nationwide chapters combat what they consider the “woke indoctrination” of children by advocating for book bans in school libraries and endorsing candidates for public office that align with the group’s views. They also use their multiple social media platforms to target teachers and school officials, advocate for the abolition of the Department of Education, advance a conspiracy propaganda, and spread hateful imagery and rhetoric against the LGBTQ community.

SPLC followed that description with a list of quotes from members, and–assuming you can stomach the vitriol–you really have to read what the actual “moms for liberty” have to say. It’s incredibly hateful. They seem especially fixated on the notion that gender dysphoria exists, calling it a “mental illness,” but the animus extends far beyond gay children; one “mom for liberty” threatened to shoot a librarian. (I guess “liberty” doesn’t extend to our right to read books these fearless warriors disapprove of…)

SPLC reports that the “social media accounts and real-world activity of the national organization and its chapters” is filled with antigovernment and conspiracy propaganda, and especially with anti-LGBTQ and anti-gender identity diatribes. The group also opposes  inclusive curricula, and is firmly anti-public school. (In case you hadn’t noticed,  teachers’ unions are the devil’s handiwork…)

I began my professional life as a high-school English teacher, and I continue to believe that words have meanings–both connotations and definitions. Among the multitude of problems we face in our effort to create and maintain a government that functions properly and respects all of its increasingly diverse citizens, communication is key. And key to our ability to communicate is our use of accurate language.

I don’t know how “pro-life” people who don’t care about the lives of children once they’re born–or the lives of women experiencing dangerous pregnancies– define “pro life.”  I’m pretty sure “moms for liberty” haven’t the slightest notion what “liberty” actually means.

Along with everything else we need to do, Americans really need to reclaim the English language…


Calling BS

I think the University of Montana is onto something.

One of the biggest problems facing contemporary societies–not just in the U.S., but worldwide–is propaganda. Disinformation and conspiracy theories and just plain lying are ubiquitous (propaganda today, as Steve Bannon inelegantly put it, is achieved by “flooding the zone with shit”). It matters. As any medical professional will attest, a wrong diagnosis of what ails you will prevent the identification of a remedy to cure you.

The University of Montana has an intriguing approach to that flooded zone; it offers a course titled “Calling Bullshit,” the purpose of which is to examine why it’s so easy to spread misinformation and untruths and why it’s so hard to combat it. It’s an effort to explore “what citizens can do to become better consumers and producers of factual information.”

“The name is definitely provocative, but the class is not about the cussword,” said course instructor Professor Lee Banville, director of UM’s School of Journalism. “It’s about information literacy. People need to be both better sharers of information and better consumers of information.”

Because the subject is indeed serious, Banville chose a more appropriately earnest title when he launched the course in 2021. News Literacy, however, generated about as much excitement from students as one might expect.

“We had about 20 students in the class because, let’s face it, the title was boring,” Banville said. “Calling it B.S., we had 40 students this summer and 102 are enrolled this fall.”

The idea for the class – and its unconventional  title – isn’t entirely original. The University of Washington also sponsors a course titled Calling Bullshit, and its instructors, Professor Carl Bergstrom and Associate Professor Jevin West, wrote a book on the subject with the same title. Their emphasis though is on the misuse of data, Banville said, whereas UM’s looks more at how to spot and debunk misinformation in journalism and social media.

Students have noted that, while the title was provocative, the course content was surprisingly rigorous, imparting skills that will help them navigate our increasingly fraught information environment. The ultimate goal is to educate students to become critical thinkers regardless of where the country leans politically from year to year.

“The title may be a little playful,” Leigh said, “but I can’t think of a better skill set to teach our students than to not take things at face value. It’s valuable really for all consumers of news and media.”

 In the coming semesters, Banville and Leigh would like to expand the number of students who can take the course, but they want to keep class sizes small enough to foster two-way dialogue that respects other points of view.

Teaching such a course requires discussion of the difference between recognizing BS and “calling” it. The latter takes fortitude.

And that title?

Banville said he wanted a course name that “hit” students upside the head, but even he struggled at times with Calling Bullshit.

“When I was filling out the paperwork to start the course, I kept thinking I can’t believe I am submitting this form, and I even used an asterisk in place of the ‘i’ at first,” he recalled. “I was waiting for someone to push back, and no one did.

“Yeah, the name is provocative,” he said, “but information literacy is incredibly important to society and our democracy.”

Several years ago, I bought and thoroughly enjoyed a little book published by Princeton University Press and written by Harry Frankfort, a noted moral philosopher. It was titled “On Bullshit.” In it, Frankfurt explored bullshit and the related concepts of humbug and lying, and distinguished among them.

Courses like this one, that help students develop critical thinking skills, are increasingly important in a world where so much “information” should not be taken at face value. That said, there are people who–for a variety of reasons–are especially vulnerable to so-called “fake news.” One recent study found that some people have an especially difficult time rejecting misinformation.

Asked to rate a fictitious person on a range of character traits, people who scored low on a test of cognitive ability continued to be influenced by damaging information about the person even after they were explicitly told the information was false. The study is significant because it identifies what may be a major risk factor for vulnerability to fake news.

The study found older adults to be especially vulnerable to fake news. Lack of vulnerability  correlated highly with education–presumably, because education helps people develop “meta-cognitive skills.”

Like the ability to call bullshit…..