Category Archives: Education / Youth

Misinformation And A Shared Reality

Kathleen Hall Jamison is a towering figure in academic journalism–she has authored numerous books and articles on the relationship between media and politics, and she founded and still oversees Factcheck.org.

Politico recently ran an interview with Jamison in which she made some important distinctions–between truth and fact, and between consequential and inconsequential misinformation.

Journalism is the reporting of fact. Truth is a more fraught concept. In common with most people, Jamison says she hears the word “truth” with a capital T. The word thus capitalized tends to confirm finality: I have discovered the Truth and need not investigate further.

We live in a world in which our understanding is progressing. Knowledge is evolving. There are “truths” in the universe—truths about physics, for example. There are “truths” inside a religious universe—presuppositional things that people treat as truth.

Rather than speaking of Truth-with-a-capital-T, Jamison is more comfortable saying that “there is knowledge that is more or less certain”–what I’d call “facts on the ground.”

She also provides a clear-headed summary of the situation in which Americans currently find ourselves.

So, that said, we live in an environment in which institutional trust is down. The challenge to established knowledge is now greater than it once was. The institutions that certify what we can know are not as trusted as they once were—in part because they have done things that demonstrate that they aren’t able to be trusted (at least some of them in some circumstances). You’ve got more factors challenging institutional forms of knowledge production, and sometimes that’s healthy—trying to hold them accountable is a goal of journalism. Some of them are more trustworthy than others; those that are more trustworthy are trustworthy more times than some would think. There are methods underlying trustworthiness of knowledge. Transparency is a norm. When it’s not honored, less trust. Reproducibility is a norm. When it’s not honored, less trust. A culture of self-critique and of critique is a norm. When it’s not honored, less trust. Those are norms of science. Those are also norms of good journalism.

We live in a world in which some good tendencies—the tendency to critique, the tendency to be skeptical—have gotten out of hand. And as a result, and we live in a polarized environment in which, for ideologically convenient ends, people who see ideologically inconvenient “knowledge” have more ways to discredit it with fewer places to anchor the knowledge.

When it comes to the distinction between information that is and is not consequential, Jamison gives a shout-out to the judiciary, noting that the courts have established rules for determining what constitutes relevant evidence and determining its credibility. Those mechanisms allowed the courts to arrive at a common conclusion when faced with the false assertions of the Trump campaign. We aren’t without tools for determining what is knowable and what is not.

That said, Jamison’s concern is with consequential facts.

With a lot of things, whether or not they’re factual doesn’t really affect anybody. I mean, they’re useful to know at a cocktail party, but they’re not consequential.

So how do we understand what is consequential? She provides an excellent analogy:

If you’re going to teach kids civics, I don’t care whether they know when Paul Revere rode. I don’t even care if they know that Paul Revere rode. In fact, I don’t care whether Paul Revere rode.

I do care that they understand there are three branches of government. I care that they understand that there are checks and balances built into our system. I care that they understand we have a veto—and what that means, when you exercise it, and how you override it. I care that they understand that there’s an independent Supreme Court; that we’ve set up the Supreme Court to be different and that it’s not a political branch of government. Those are consequential. They are consequential because if you understand them, you act and think differently about our system of government. The willingness to protect our system is, in part, a function of understanding our system, and understanding that our system has presuppositional facts—consequential facts—under it. If I don’t understand those things, then if the Supreme Court issues a series of unpopular decisions that I don’t like, I’m more likely to say that maybe we should get rid of the Supreme Court.

It all comes back to operating in a shared reality. That’s especially important to our ability to communicate, and to be contributing citizens in  a functional political system.

A Breached Agreement

I am ceding today’s post to a longtime friend, Chris Douglas. I have frequently criticized school voucher programs, for the reasons Chris lists and for several others, but he brings a particular perspective to the issue– and a well-founded belief that school vouchers breach the promises of Indiana’s constitution.

With his permission, his recent Facebook post on the subject is below.

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I’ve reflected lately on the number of things that I have found jaw-dropping late in life…. that I could never have imagined… the latest being the State of Texas not only opening up fully and abandoning masks while so many of its populations are totally vulnerable.. but attacking municipalities like Austin that have maintained mask mandates.

Vouchers delivering tax payer money to religious ministries that discriminate blatantly against innumerable Hoosiers, but LGBT Hoosiers especially, likewise are jaw dropping to me, as flagrant violations of our State Constitution. The… I don’t know what to call it… cavalier attitude….indifference… disregard… that I find among some people of influence.. with regard to the plain words, intent, meaning and spirit of our constitution protecting us explicitly from being coerced into the support of ministries against our consent… prohibiting money from going from the state treasury to religious institutions…. and banning religious qualification for offices of public trust and profit….. all flagrantly and intentionally violated by Indiana’s Voucher laws in their current form.

Now we are all of us .. after 200 years of religious freedom in Indiana… being taxed to support “education” that the Catholic Church and various Evangelical Churches have openly declared are ministries.. funded by money flowing *directly* from the treasury to those religious institutions…. who are refusing to hire and indeed are firing LGBT people on religious grounds.

Honestly, when I pledged my life to this country as a military officer… and when I returned to Indiana as a gay man… a place where my roots run so deep I get emotional… I thought we had a deal. I *thought* others would defend my rights just as I had pledged my life to defend theirs… That others would take seriously the Constitution that in Indiana has given us so much peace and freedom, each to think, believe, and worship as we might wish… none to impose our faith upon others…. all to accept each other as equals under the protections of the law in the common cause of our democracy.

I find… even among readers here… you know who you are… you really don’t give a damn. You think it’s perfectly acceptable. You hold no one accountable. You don’t understand… you certainly don’t embrace… your personal obligations to finally speak up for the rights of people who aren’t you. You’ve pushed for this. As if state funding of discriminatory.. indeed, in some instances, hateful, ministries.. is the only way of achieving our Constitutional imperative of providing education.

And some of you line your pockets in the process… or cozy socially, professionally, or politically about… silent while hatreds are funded.. whipped up… with public money… against your fellow citizens. Somebody else’s job to fight. Not yours. Not your social, political, or professional capital to expend.

Even before the Archdiocese declared every teacher, counselor, and administrator a minister… even while academy after academy receiving public funding (while promoting creationism… the subjugation of women… and damnation for all who do not believe precisely as they) declare themselves ministries of their narrow faith…. even as we contemplate the silent, sometimes terminal, darkness into which we plunge lgbt youth, condemned even by their own parents…

I reflect on the private words… the sneer… of one leader of this mess to me: “You’re not supporting any ministry….” calling black, white…. calling up, down… calling a circle a square. Why? Because he really just doesn’t care.

Here in Indiana, we had a deal. It’s in writing. It’s 200 years old. It has enabled people of strong and diverse and conflicitng faiths to live with each other in peace and mutual acceptance as has not been possible in Europe, Ireland, the Middle east or Burma. It appears to me that deal is over, the contract not even shredded, just denied while looking us in the eye and daring us to defend ourselves against your attack.

I thought we were in trenches together as Americans, as Hoosiers, whatever our differences, sharing the values of our Constitution as our bond. Turns out, I look around… and your bayonet is fixed against us, our Constitution successfully pocketed, denied, nowhere to be seen. You’ve become what, when I pledged my life in defense of our Constitution, I pledged my life against.

I’ll never understand it. I’ll never get over it.

YES!

Finally, people are seeing the connections. (And this time, I’m not talking about the extent to which America’s problems are grounded in suspicion and hatred of “the Other”–although recognition of that phenomenon has also grown.) I’m talking about civic literacy.

A recent report from the Washington Post began

It has been a bad 12 months for the practice of civics in America.
The U.S. Capitol attacked by thugs. An alleged plot to kidnap a state governor. Bogus claims of widespread election fraud. Violent protests in the streets. Death threats against public health officials. And a never-ending barrage of anger and misinformation on social media directed at, and by, politicians, leaders, pundits and an increasingly bitter and frustrated populace.

As the battles have raged, trust in institutions — government, media, the law — has plummeted.

So how did we get here? And how do we get out?

The article quotes researchers who draw a direct line from our current “civics crises” to America’s long-standing failure to teach civics. Schools do–and have done–a poor job of teaching American government, history and civic responsibility. Priority has been given to development of marketable skills and STEM education. (You can tell which subjects legislators and school systems consider important by looking at which ones are subject to  the high-stakes testing that is now widespread. Most systems do not test for civics.)

Now, a diverse collection of academics, historians, teachers, school administrators and state education leaders is proposing an overhaul of the way civics and history are taught to American K-12 students. And they’re calling for a massive investment of funds, teacher training and curriculum development to help make that happen.

The Educating for American Democracy (EAD) initiative will release a 36-page report and an accompanying 39-page road map Tuesday, laying out extensive guidance for improving and reimagining the teaching of social studies, history and civics and then implementing that over the next decade.

If I wasn’t a really old broad, I’d do a cartwheel!

The “road map” attributes the extensive distrust of America’s democratic institutions to the public’s “dangerously low” civic knowledge. When it comes to understanding how America’s government is supposed to function, large majorities are functionally illiterate. The report doesn’t pull punches–it finds that neglect of civic education is a major cause of our civic and political dysfunction.

As readers of this blog know, I’ve been singing this song for the past ten years. The Center for Civic Literacy at IUPUI–which I founded–had documented both the inadequacy of American civic education and the deleterious effects of civic ignorance. (If you want to beat your head against that wall, use the blog’s search function, type in “civic literacy,” and prepare to be inundated with posts and academic papers.

it isn’t simply a matter of devoting more time to civics–it’s also a question of teaching the subject matter effectively.

The report calls for an inquiry-based approach that would focus less on memorizing dates of wars and names of presidents and more on exploring in depth the questions and developments, good and bad, that have created the America we live in today and plan to live in well beyond the nation’s 250th anniversary in 2026. What students need, the report argues, is not a laundry list of facts, but a process that produces a better understanding of how the country’s history shaped its present.

As one teacher was quoted, teaching civics has too often been like preparing students to do well in a game of Trivial Pursuit“– a list of items that you could recite on a multiple-choice test. What students need, however, is a much better understanding of how systems work and how individuals can participate in the processes of electing, debating, governing and consensus-reaching.

The new focus on educating students to become more knowledgeable citizens calls for an investment in teacher training, curriculum development and an approach that would emphasize teaching of history and civics to the same degree as STEM and English language arts courses.

It’s past time.

Horton Hears A Censor

A number of years ago, when my husband was still practicing architecture, he was presenting a school board with preliminary plans for a school they’d hired him to design. There were a number of decisions on which he wanted their feedback, but the board focused entirely–for an hour!– on arguments over the size of an elevator, and whether it should accommodate one wheelchair or two.

As he left, he ran into a friend, and explained his frustration with the school board’s focus. The friend said something I’ve thought about on multiple occasions since: “people argue about what they understand.” Insightful as that observation was, I think it needs amending to “People argue about what they think they understand.”

Which brings me to censorship, accusations of “cancel culture,” and Dr. Seuss, with a brief side trip to Mr. Potato Head.

The right wing is exercised–even hysterical–and screaming “censorship” about a decision made by the company that controls publication of the Dr. Seuss books. It will suspend publication of six of those sixty-odd books, based upon a determination that  they contain racist and insensitive imagery. The decision didn’t affect “Green Eggs and Ham,” “The Cat in the Hat,” “Horton Hears a Who” or numerous other titles.

This is not censorship, not only because they aren’t proposing to collect and destroy the numerous copies that already exist but because, in our constitutional system,  only government can censor speech. In fact, a decision by the company that owns the rights to Dr. Seuss’ books is an exercise of that company’s own free speech rights.

Think of it this way: you post something to Twitter, then think better of it and remove that post. You haven’t been censored; you made both the initial decision to post whatever it was and the subsequent decision to remove it.

Or think about that same example in the context of contemporary criticism of so-called “cancel culture.” You post something that other people find offensive. They respond by criticizing you. Your public-sector employer hasn’t punished you and, for that matter, no government entity has taken any action, but many people have expressed disdain or worse. Again–that is neither censorship nor “cancellation.”

The Free Speech clause of the First Amendment protects us from government actions that suppress the free expression of our opinions or our ability to access particular information or ideas. It doesn’t protect us from the disapproval of our fellow-citizens. It doesn’t even protect us from being sanctioned or fired by our private-sector employer, because that employer has its own First-Amendment right to ensure that messages being publicly communicated by its employees are consistent with its own.

When Walmart decides not to carry a particular book, when a local newspaper (remember those?) rejects an advertisement or refuses to print a letter to the editor, when the manufacturer of “Mr. Potato Head” decides to drop the “Mr,” those entities are exercising their First Amendment rights. They aren’t “censoring.” They aren’t even “cancelling.”

You are within your rights to disagree with the decision by those who own the Dr. Seuss catalogue (actually, that “company” is run by the author’s family, aka the Seuss estate.) Disagreement and criticism are your rights under the First Amendment. You are free to argue that the decision was misplaced, that it constituted over-reaction…whatever. But since the government did not require that decision–or participate in it– it wasn’t censorship. And unless the criticism was accompanied by ostracism–unless it was accompanied by removal of the author’s books from bookstores and libraries–it isn’t cancellation, either.

Americans have a right to freedom of expression. We have no right–constitutional or otherwise– to freedom from criticism. The desire of America’s culture warriors to “own the libs” doesn’t trump that reality.

As for the decision to stop printing and circulating six books with unfortunate portrayals, we’d do well to heed Charles Blow. In a column for the New York Times, Blow reminded readers that the images we present to young children can be highly corrosive and racially vicious.Times article on the controversy noted that  a number of other children’s books have been edited to purge what we now recognize as racist stereotypes. Often, those edits have been made by the authors who wrote the books, who belatedly recognized that they had engaged in hurtful stereotyping.

Agree or disagree with a given decision–whether by the Dr. Seuss estate or by Hasbro, the Potato Head manufacturer–it was a decision they had the right to make and a right that the rest of us have an obligation to respect, even if we disagree.

Vouchers And Religious Discrimination

Can you stand one more rant about the un-American motives and consequences of school voucher programs?

I’ve been following a case that was filed last year in North Carolina. So far as I have been able to tell, it is still working its way through that state’s courts. The Raleigh News and Observer reported on the filing last July, noting that seven North Carolina parents had partially based their claim that program was unconstitutional on the fact that it provides funding to schools that engage in religious discrimination. 

The program has been controversial since it was launched in 2014. Supporters say it gives parents more choice in educating their children. Opponents say it siphons millions of tax dollars away from public schools each year and requires little accountability from private schools that receive the funds. 

The Complaint identified the parents as state taxpayers who have school-age children who can’t use the vouchers at certain private schools due to their religious beliefs, their identities or their sexual orientations, and the suit alleges that public funds are supporting schools “that divide communities on religious lines, disparage many North Carolinians’ faiths and identities, and coerce families into living under religious dictates.”

Another story, from the Citizen Times, documented the accuracy of those assertions.

In 2017, Elizabeth Meininger, a police officer in Fayetteville, went to enroll her two young children at Berean Baptist Academy, a local private school.

Elizabeth and her wife, Kate, liked Berean’s curriculum and felt its small class sizes could challenge their daughter and son, who seemed to be overlooked in their large county school system.

The Meiningers’ combined income qualified them for North Carolina’s Opportunity Scholarships, a $4,200 public voucher they could put toward covering private school tuition. With the voucher, Berean was affordable — less than half the price of a non-religious private option like Fayetteville Academy.

Yet soon after Elizabeth and Kate started Berean’s application process, the school informed them it wouldn’t accept their children. According to Elizabeth, school officials said Berean only accepted Christian families and the Meiningers couldn’t be Christian if they were gay.

Elizabeth and Kate subsequently discovered that, every year, Berean took in hundreds of thousands in taxpayer dollars through the North Carolina voucher program. The paper further reported that of the eight schools that had received the most Opportunity Scholarship money last year, six had explicit policies against students or parents who are homosexual, transgender, and gender non-conforming.

It gets worse: Many of the schools taking taxpayer money use a “science” curriculum that teaches the earth was created six thousand years ago, in six days, by God. In science class.

In the 2019-2020 school year, North Carolina doled out $48 million in scholarships–money that would otherwise have been available for the state’s public school systems. The schools benefitting most from this largesse clearly feel no compunction to hide their discriminatory policies. According to the article, Berean took in $855,877 in vouchers in 2019, the second highest amount in the state, and as part of its published school policy, “factors in” students and families’ sexual orientation and gender identity.

Another religious school, Liberty Christian Academy, received $651,641 in 2019-20, the third-most in the state. The school lists “participating in, supporting, or condoning sexual immorality, homosexual activist, bisexual activity” as reason for denying or removing students. Yet another–Northwood Temple Academy– took in $500,000. Its website cites biblical passages supporting its anti-gay policies.

The tax dollars being sent to these discriminatory schools–dollars being used to indoctrinate American children into very unAmerican attitudes–come from all North Carolina’s citizens–including those who are Muslim, Jewish, and gay and transgender, despite the fact that few if any voucher schools will accept their children.

it’s hard to disagree with Craig White, a bisexual man who works at the Asheville-based Campaign for Southern Equality, who is quoted as saying  “I should have the right to see my tax dollars not go to an institution that labels me as an abomination.” 

The challenge is based on North Carolina’s state constitution. But even if this program doesn’t run afoul of that charter, it is terrible public policy.

Before we had reams of research showing that voucher programs do not improve academic outcomes, it may have been possible to justify support for vouchers as a mechanism allowing poor children to escape failing public schools. But not only have we seen that those children do no better–and often worse–academically, we have seen legislators substantially raise the income limits for participation. 

Welcome to the new “Christian” version of the old segregation academy…