How to Inform a More Perfect Union

Faith in—and basic knowledge of—America’s most essential institutions has rarely felt so tenuous. Can our educational system save us?

Photo illustration by Natalie Matthews-Ramo. Photos by Archideaphoto/Thinkstock and Alex Wong/Getty Images.

Photo illustration by Natalie Matthews-Ramo. Photos by Archideaphoto/Thinkstock and Alex Wong/Getty Images.

Around Election Day, a prescient 2012 statement from retired Supreme Court Justice David Souter resurfaced on social media. Souter was speaking in Concord, New Hampshire, and a member of the audience asked about the role of schools in producing “civically engaged students.”*

“I’ll start with the bottom line,” the justice said, sighing deeply. “I don’t believe there is any problem of American politics and American public life which is more significant today than the pervasive civic ignorance of the Constitution the United States and the structure of government.” He went on to express concern that an ill-informed and disgruntled electorate would turn toward an authoritarian ruler and suggested a revival of civics education in American high schools. “An ignorant people,” Souter said, channeling Thomas Jefferson, “can never remain a free people.”

In our reality-warping era of “alternative facts,” imaginary papal endorsements, “pizzagate,” and “widespread voter fraud,” it seems more important than ever to help people, especially young people, learn to sift fact from fiction and figure out how to engage constructively with their government. Not surprisingly, voices on both the left and right have begun to call for our educational system to work toward a fix.

At the confirmation hearings for Sen. Jeff Sessions, President Donald Trump’s nominee to be attorney general, Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse proclaimed, “We have a crisis of civic education. … This is a crisis when kids don’t understand the distinction between the legislative and executive branches.” Sasse went on, implausibly, to suggest President Obama was at fault, for confusing children with his aggressive use of executive actions. Still, Sasse is right about the widespread ignorance of the way the federal government works. A 2015 survey from the Annenberg Public Policy Center found only 31 percent of respondents could name all three branches of government.

The progressive Century Foundation is concerned, too. In a recent report it argued that Trump’s election indicates the “failure of our education system to instill an essential belief in the values of constitutional democracy,” such as freedom of the press and freedom of religion. There have been scores of news stories written about a single study out of Stanford that found that 80 percent of middle-schoolers can’t tell the difference between sponsored content and a news story, while less than a third of college students understand that a tweet from an activist group may be a biased source of news.

Could a push for media literacy and civics education unite conservatives and liberals who fear the rise of uninformed voters swayed by propaganda and “fake news”? As Chris Berdik recently reported in Slate, preliminary research suggests that students who receive media literacy training are better able than other students to evaluate the accuracy of political claims and distinguish advertising, entertainment, and advocacy from news.

But there’s reason to be skeptical, too. The media literacy and civics education movements aren’t new. And their history shows that when curriculum-writers and teachers wade into these waters, they often get caught up in ideological storms, buffeted by the very disagreements over facts and values that they hoped to teach children to overcome.

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America would never have had a public education system if not for elite anxiety about the excesses of popular democracy. The civics education movement began in the 19th century, when social reformers wanted teachers to make sure that the voters of the future would choose the right candidates—men who were rational, moral, and disinterested. Horace Mann, a founder of the common school movement, wrote in 1847 that public schools had the “power” to “redeem the state from social vices and crime.” The goal of education was to create “exemplary men—honest dealers, conscientious jurors, true witnesses, incorruptible voters and magistrates, good parents, good neighbors, good members of society.”

Beneath that lovely rhetoric were some uglier convictions. Protestant common school reformers such as Mann believed America’s fundamental democratic character was threatened by the swell of “papist” Catholic immigrants, and they wanted teachers to inculcate children with WASP morality. Indeed, calls for civics education have often been strongly ideological. During World War I, New York City public school teachers who refused to deliver prebaked lessons on the superiority of the United States to other nations were investigated and sometimes driven from their jobs. The same thing happened during the McCarthy era. All in all, tens of thousands of left-leaning American educators lost their jobs in red scares. Progressive educators, too, have pursued ideological goals under the guise of civics education. In 1943, the New York City teachers union produced a sample civics lesson that glorified Soviet communism.

These historic examples may seem extreme, but civics education continues to fall prey to ideological minefields. In Texas, where Republican legislators have fought hard to influence the social studies curriculum, the state standards for high school government classes refer frequently to the American “free market system” and call for students to “understand how government taxation and regulation can serve as restrictions to private enterprise.” (This is a longtime conservative educational priority. Amway, the multilevel marketing company owned by the family of Betsy DeVos, Trump’s pick for secretary of education, runs a program in which volunteers visit classrooms to teach children “the fundamentals of free enterprise, business and economics.”) The Texas standards also refer to the “Judeo-Christian” and “Biblical law” roots of American democracy—phrases that appear nowhere in the social studies standards of liberal New York City.

When it comes to the economy, the New York City standards emphasize that the American system is not technically free market but rather a “mixed economy,” meaning it is shaped by both the market and by government regulation. The New York City Department of Education suggests that 12th-graders explore the question, “Is American capitalism sustainable? … Economic policymakers face considerable challenges within a capitalist system, including unemployment, inflation, poverty, and environmental impact.” The content of civics education inevitably flows from the political principles of the school district and state.

The Common Core standards that are currently driving curricular change across the country attempt to thread the ideological needle on civics education. They focus on the importance of students reading and analyzing primary historical sources such as the Declaration of Independence, the Federalist Papers, the U.S. Constitution, and various Supreme Court decisions. Pretty much everyone can agree those documents are crucial to a good education, but that doesn’t mean they are easy to discuss without debating contemporary politics. For example, how heavily should teachers emphasize the discrimination against women and minorities that is baked into our founding documents? Will administrators or parents complain if teachers raise questions about whether Donald Trump’s travel ban is constitutional? As I’ve reported for Slate, one campaign-season survey of mostly progressive teachers found that 40 percent were scared to discuss the election with their students, lest they hear complaints from parents or administrators.

They may be right to worry. In a July blog post, the conservative-leaning education advocate Robert Pondiscio wrote about psychology research that suggests that civics education celebrating multiculturalism as a positive value risks provoking an intense conservative backlash. Individuals in the majority group tend to turn toward authoritarianism when they feel the monolithic society they grew up in is “coming apart.” It would be more politically unifying, Pondiscio suggested, to base civics education around the constitutional ideals that unite Americans. “There is good evidence to think that the key to creating conditions that sincerely welcome and celebrate diversity may lie in focusing the attention of our children on what makes us one country and one people,” he wrote. “The challenge for our diverse, pluralistic and democratic society—a challenge that, as ever, falls most heavily on schools, the civic institutions with the broadest reach in American life—is to blunt the sense that we are, in fact, coming apart.”

A liberal might respond that minority students or girls will feel left out by a curriculum that does not reflect their struggles and unique experiences and that those in majority groups will get a richer education if they are exposed to diverse cultures and perspectives. In short, it’s difficult to imagine a purely nonideological or unifying civics curriculum. And in truth, there has never been a time when American classrooms had one.

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The media literacy movement is a historically newer attempt to deal with the same problems that civics education tackles: the ability of students to grow into informed and empathetic citizens. According to Renee Hobbs, director of the Media Education Lab at the University of Rhode Island, the movement can be traced back to the early 1940s, when books with titles such as How to Read a Newspaper were popular. In that work, Edgar Dale, a professor at Ohio State University, explained that newspapers were businesses supported by advertisers; that the reporting and editing process could introduce errors and leave out important information; and that headlines were, by necessity, incomplete and sometimes misleading attempts to capture the audience’s attention.

If these revelations seem anodyne today, it is only because media critique has become such a central part of our culture. Media literacy theorists are amused by the attention their field has received since Election Day from journalists looking for solutions to the spread of viral conspiracy theories. For decades, media literacy education has “corrected misinformation and dealt with the question of whether media messages can and do tell the truth,” Hobbs said. “That has always been fundamental.”

The media literacy movement picked up steam after World War II, when English teachers shocked by revelations about the Holocaust developed curricular materials on how to spot propaganda. Then, in the 1970s, popular and visual culture became more central. Kodak funded efforts to introduce “visual literacy” into the curriculum, teaching children that photographers and filmmakers make editorial decisions each time they frame and edit their shots.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, there was an explosion of interest in media literacy education, driven by both liberal and conservative concerns. Some of it trickled down from the academic cultural studies movement, as progressives increasingly wanted students to deconstruct the sexist, racist, and otherwise bigoted stereotypes in films, TV shows, news stories, and advertisements. (The magazine Adbusters, a staple of grunge-era alternative culture, was founded in 1989. It went on to play a key role in the Occupy Wall Street movement.) Simultaneously, culture warriors were deeply worried about children’s exposure to violence on film and later, in the age of school shootings, on violence in video games.

A commitment to media literacy “tends to bubble up from the grassroots—a passionate teacher who says, ‘My kids don’t know how to analyze advertising.’ Or, ‘Look at this terrible example of violence the kids are celebrating and laughing at and being desensitized to,’ ” Hobbs said. “From the right, media literacy teachers in Tulsa are worried about satanic imagery in Disney movies.”

In 2017, the idea that you can’t trust the media has become a cliché. But this cynicism can be dangerous, says Paul Mihailidis, a media literacy theorist and associate professor at Emerson College. In a 2013 study, Mihailidis examined the attitudes of students at the University of Maryland, some of whom were enrolled in a media literacy course and some of whom were not. The students who completed the class were better able to critically analyze media sources. But they also demonstrated negative and even hopeless views, which could prompt them to distrust even reliable sources of information. In one representative comment, a student said, “I personally feel like organizations are out to get us. I think everyone needs to question everything. I think when the media tell you something on the news, they aren’t trying to give you information, but trying to benefit themselves.”

If media literacy education doesn’t move beyond critique to also offer examples of how the media can create positive change—such as when an investigative reporter reveals an injustice, or a citizen uses social media to organize a petition or protest—it can lead to “more cynicism toward civic engagement,” Mihailidis said. “Media literacy is now being seen as a panacea or solution,” he added, but effective media literacy empowers students to consume and create good content, not just critique the bad stuff. In other words, skepticism toward sources is good, but a blanket cynicism is counterproductive to the civic ends that media literacy theorists hope to achieve: a more informed and engaged public.

At their heart, these pedagogical movements are really about knowledge and skills that ought to be developed in any decent history or English class: an understanding of our nation’s founding and laws and an ability to consume media critically and seek out accurate sources of information. If our schools aren’t excelling at those tasks, the solutions may be old hat: better teacher training, stronger curricular materials, and more funding for schools that are especially struggling to provide good instruction.

What’s more, the outlook may not be as grim as postelection prognosticators make it out to be. The same 2015 Annenberg survey that found ignorance of the three branches of government had some bright spots. Eighty-one percent of respondents knew the Constitution protected the right to peacefully assemble, and 69 percent knew it protected against unreasonable searches and seizures. Seventy-six percent said government should not be able to prevent the press from publishing articles critical of the government. With a new president who has condemned protesters and journalists, that’s knowledge that may come in handy. Americans are more prepared for the era of alternative facts than we thought.

Correction, Feb. 15, 2017: This article originally said Souter spoke in 2012 at the University of New Hampshire Law School. The event in question took place at another venue in Concord, New Hampshire. (Return.)