Category Archives: Education / Youth

But What About The Children?

When I was growing up–admittedly, sometime during the Ice Age–children were admonished to tell the truth by being told the story of George Washington and the Cherry Tree.

Granted, it turned out that the story was a fable, but it was widely believed because George Washington was considered an admirable man, an excellent President and an all-around role model for the nation’s children.

Donald John Trump, not so much.

And that’s a problem, because it turns out that Presidential behavior really does encourage imitation. It can normalize ugly behavior, and not just in the already flawed/racist adults that comprise Trump’s base.

A regular reader of this blog recently shared this article with me. After I stopped puking, I decided to share it.

Evidently, it isn’t just Trump’s constant lying, with the implication that “truth” is whatever you want it to be. The article referenced studies that find America’s children using Trumpian rhetoric to bully their classmates–mostly Latino, Muslim and Black classmates.

Children across the US are using Donald Trump’s rhetoric to bully their classmates, a report has found.

The Washington Post reviewed articles throughout Mr Trump’s presidency that reference elementary, middle, or high school bullying and found students using the president’s inflammatory statements, which are often described as racist or xenophobic, to bully.

The newspaper analysed 28,000 articles starting from the beginning of 2016 for its research relating to bullying in the classroom. It found Mr Trump’s words, chants at his campaign rallies, and even his last name were used by students and staff members to harass other people in more than 300 reported incidents.

Of those incidents, 75 per cent showed inflammatory language relating to Mr Trump directed at students who are Hispanic, Muslim or black.

The article recounts incidents in which Latino students were subjected to taunts of “build the wall” and “Make America Great Again.” In one particularly horrific account, last year in New Jersey a 13-year-old boy told his 12-year-old Mexican American classmate that “all Mexicans should go back behind the wall”.

The classmate’s mother approached the bully the next day about his comment and was beaten unconscious by the child.

Buzzfeed also analyzed the impact of Trump’s words and their use to bully other students, and found 50 incidents in 26 states where students who were intimidating or harassing other children used phrases frequently employed by the president.

One incident happened at a high school in Shakopee, Minnesota, where boys in Donald Trump shirts swarmed a black teenage girl and sang The Star-Spangled Banner. But instead of singing the correct lyrics, they replaced the closing line with “and home of the slaves”.

There are multiple reports of native-born white children telling Hispanic or Asian classmates that they will be deported, that they aren’t “real” Americans.

While on a school bus in San Antonio, Texas, a white eighth grader told a Filipino classmate, “You are going to be deported.” A black classmate in Brea, California, was told by a white eighth grader, “Now that Trump won, you’re going to have to go back to Africa, where you belong.”

As incredibly corrupt as he is, as horrible as his policy positions are, and as hurtful to the nation’s most vulnerable children, the emerging research about Trump’s effect on the lessons we want to teach the young about civility, morality and ethics–not to mention racism, sexism and other assorted bigotries– is arguably even more damaging.

Assuming we soundly defeat this crude, ignorant, semi-literate buffoon in November, we will have a lot of remedial work to do. If we don’t, it will be too late to save the children.

 

Subsidizing Bigotry

As the country’s diversity and tribalism have grown, America’s public schools have become more necessary than ever. The public school is one of the last “street corners” where children of different backgrounds and beliefs come together to learn–ideally–not just “reading, writing and arithmetic” but the history and philosophy of the country they share.

Today’s Americans read different books and magazines, visit different websites, listen to different music, watch different television programs, and occupy different social media bubbles. In most communities, we’ve lost a shared daily newspaper. The experiences we do share continue to diminish.

Given this fragmentation, the assaults on public education are assaults on a shared America.

Nevertheless, politicians and (especially) religious adherents who feel threatened by diversity and modernity have worked tirelessly to support voucher programs that allow parents to remove their children from public school systems and send them to private–almost always religious–schools, where they study with “their own kind.” The rhetoric around these programs typically defends them as “allowing children to escape failing schools”–although those “failing” schools are hardly helped by sending their already inadequate resources to private schools–despite consistent research showing that vouchers virtually never lead to academic improvement. (They do, however, lead to increased racial segregation.)

As an added indignity, voucher programs send tax dollars to schools that discriminate against LGBTQ children and children with LGBTQ parents. Here in Indiana, Cathedral High School, which received over a million dollars in 2018, fired a gay teacher;  Roncalli High School, which also has accepted vouchers worth millions fired a much-loved gay counselor who was in a same-sex marriage.

Recently, in a welcome announcement, two major contributors to Florida’s voucher program announced that they would no longer be contributing to that state’s program, which also allowed recipient schools to deny admission to gay students.

Two of the largest banks in the U.S. say they will stop donating millions of dollars to Florida’s private school voucher program after a newspaper investigation found that some of the program’s beneficiaries discriminate against LGBTQ students.

In a statement to NBC News and CNBC on Wednesday evening, Wells Fargo confirmed that it would no longer participate.

“We have reviewed this matter carefully and have decided to no longer support Step Up for Students,” the San Francisco-based bank said of the voucher program. “All of us at Wells Fargo highly value diversity and inclusion, and we oppose discrimination of any kind.”

In a tweet to a Florida lawmaker Tuesday, Fifth Third Bank, based in Cincinnati, said it has told officials with the voucher program that it will also stop participating.

An investigation by the Orlando Sentinel found 156 private Christian schools with anti-gay views that participated in Florida’s program. Those schools educated more than 20,000 students whose tuition was paid by Florida taxpayers–including, obviously, LGBTQ taxpayers.

The investigation found that 83 of the 156 schools with anti-gay views refuse to enroll LGBTQ students, and that some number of those schools also exclude students whose parents are gay.

“Florida’s scholarship programs, often referred to as school vouchers, sent more than $129 million to these religious institutions,” the Sentinel reported on Jan. 23. “That means at least 14 percent of Florida’s nearly 147,000 scholarship students last year attended private schools where homosexuality was condemned or, at a minimum, unwelcome.”

So much for the American “street corner” and our commitment to civic equality.

We taxpayers are subsidizing segregation and bigotry–without realizing the promised improvement in academic outcomes.

 

Beating That Dead Horse

I’m still mulling over that screenshot I referenced a few days ago–the one from the pro-Trump website showing the names and pictures of four people identified as Democratic Senators who were switching to the GOP in protest of the President’s Impeachment.

As you’ll recall, none of them were real Senators–or, probably, real people.

Whoever created that website clearly operated on the assumption that visitors would be  partisans so civically-ignorant that the phony names and stock photos wouldn’t trigger doubts or send them to a fact-checking site.

It was probably a well-founded assumption.

We occupy a fragmented media environment that increasingly caters to confirmation bias.  As I’ve frequently noted, Americans no longer listen to the same three network news shows and read the same daily newspapers; the ensuing intense competition for eyes, ears and clicks has spawned a treacherous information terrain.

A post at The World’s Most Dangerous Beauty Salon, Inc. is enough to curl your hair. (Sorry–couldn’t resist.) It even has graphs showing how Right-wing hoaxes and Trump’s tweeted lies proliferate.

Yesterday I talked about how Trumpists flocked to their latest article of faith that Trump isn’t really impeached because the House hasn’t transmitted the articles of impeachment to the Senate.  There is no basis in law or fact for that belief, but it’s there anyway, virally spreading throughout Trumpland.

Another profoundly stupid message that has evidently convinced those who want to believe: now that Trump is impeached, he’s automatically eligible to run 2 more times.

With rampant propaganda proliferated over social media facts or truth no longer matter.  Worse, Trump’s Twitter account amplifies these lies.  Every time he tweets one of his insults, childish taunts, threats, or lies,  it goes out to millions or users, retweeted thousands of times.  In the hands of an immoral politician like Trump, social media is weaponized for the dark side.  You can see it, but can also measure it.

The above-referenced graphs of Google trend lines show searches for these “facts.”

When I first practiced law, an older lawyer in my firm told me that there is really only one legal question, and that’s “what should we do?” That maxim applies more broadly; it absolutely applies to the absence of what has come to be called “news literacy.”

Every so often, one of my more naïve students asks why the government can’t just pass a law requiring media outlets to tell the truth. As I try to explain, truth and fact are often honestly contested—and of course, there’s the First Amendment. But we aren’t powerless just because government is prohibited from censoring us.

There’s no reason the private sector cannot develop tools to help citizens determine who they can reasonably rely on—and who they can’t. (The current criticism of Facebook for allowing campaigns to post dishonest political ads is based upon that company’s legal and technical ability to eliminate them.)

What if a nonpartisan, respected nonprofit—say the Society for Professional Journalists—developed an analog to the “Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval,” attesting to the legitimacy of a media source? The award of that seal wouldn’t indicate the truth or falsity of any particular article, but would confirm that the organization was one that adhered to the procedures required of ethical, reputable journalists.

It would take substantial funding, of course, to develop and maintain the capacity to monitor the practices and procedures of media outlets claiming to be “news.” And that “seal of approval” wouldn’t mean that any given report wasn’t flawed in some way—genuine reporters are human and make mistakes. But it would allow citizens who actually care about accuracy and evidence-based reporting to be reassured about the journalistic bona fides of sources they encounter.

Those bona fides are important, because in the new information world we all must navigate, each of us is our own “gatekeeper.” The days when editors and reporters decided what constituted verifiable news are long gone.

And that brings me back to the screen shot shared by my friend.

I know I’m beating a dead horse, but propaganda flourishes when only 26% of adults can name the three branches of government, fewer than half of 12th graders can define federalism and only 35% of teenagers know that “We the People” are the first three words of the Constitution. When politicians make claims that are blatantly inconsistent with America’s history and form of government, widespread civic ignorance virtually guarantees the uncritical acceptance of those claims by partisans who desperately want to believe them.

Adequate civic knowledge can’t guarantee that visitors to a website will know fake Senators when they see them–but it’s an essential first step.

Revealing Metaphors

Mitch Daniels–formerly the Governor of Indiana–is the current President of Purdue University. He was appointed by Trustees of the University who–not so coincidentally–he had appointed to those positions, a somewhat incestuous situation that raised a lot of eyebrows.

Daniels’ performance as President, while entirely satisfactory to those same Trustees, has been controversial among educators. There was, for example, Purdue’s acquisition of for-profit Kaplan University, in order to create Purdue Global, a marriage which is evidently not going so well. Forbes reports that Purdue Global had a net operating loss of $38.4 million last year. There was also an initiative encouraging students to finance their educations by pledging a percentage of their future earnings to investors, which some have dubbed “indentured servitude.” But most grumbling has been quiet.

Remarks Daniels made a few weeks ago, however, sparked a national discussion. As G. Gabrielle Starr, the President of Pomona College, wrote in the New York Times,

In late November, the president of Purdue University, Mitch Daniels, told students that he will soon “be recruiting one of the rarest creatures in America — a leading, I mean a really leading, African-American scholar.”

“Creatures?” a student asked. “Come on.”

“It’s a figure of speech. You must have taken some literature,” Mr. Daniels said. “One of the rarest, let me say, rarest birds, rarest, rarest, rarest phenomena.”

In just a few sentences, Mr. Daniels seemed to question the possibility of sustained black excellence. In response to the uproar that swiftly followed, he complained that he had “never felt so misunderstood” and that he had simply used a “figure of speech.” On Wednesday, he apologized and retracted the statement.

When I learned about Mr. Daniels’s words from another African-American scholar on my own campus, I felt indignant but also constrained. The standard etiquette for college presidents, like me, is to let the remarks of another leader pass on by.

Even though he apologized, I can’t do that. The idea that scholars of color are rare is a damaging fiction. Yet it’s pervasive in academia, causing untold damage. It allows some faculty deans to simply throw up their hands and give up on their recruitment efforts. It leads to small recruitment budgets for minority candidates.

Dr. Starr noted that the Purdue faculty had pushed back on the notion that black scholars are “rare birds” and he went on to identify a few of the many outstanding African-American scholars:

After Mr. Daniels’s remarks, Purdue faculty members said in a statement that “the idea that there is a scarcity of leading African-American scholars is simply not true.” Indeed, one might look to scholarly societies for leading figures: Alondra Nelson, president of the Social Science Research Council; Elizabeth Alexander, president of the Mellon Foundation; Cecilia Conrad, a managing director at the MacArthur Foundation; and Claude Steele, chair of the board of the Russell Sage Foundation. Or leaders at American colleges and universities like Jonathan Holloway, provost of Northwestern; Raynard Kington, president of Grinnell College; and Michael Drake, president of Ohio State University.

Starr’s column is eloquent, and worth reading in its entirety, but I remain bemused by the nature of the outcry that followed Daniels’ remarks. Most of the criticism I saw focused not on the inaccurate and damaging notion that black academic success is rare, but on Daniels’ use of the term “creature.”

I do understand black sensitivity to language that seems to equate African-Americans with animals, given America’s unfortunate racist history. But we are all creatures, and this reference seemed– to me at least– far less reprehensible than Daniels’ obvious assumption that black intellectuals are few and far between.

I’ve taught at the university level for twenty years, and during that time, the number of African-American scholars on our campus has grown significantly. My black colleagues have contributed enormously– to the educations of our students, to the scholarly literature, and–perhaps more importantly–to the creation of an inclusive, multicultural campus culture. I have to assume the same is true at Purdue.

Do we have a way to go? Sure. But ignoring the substantial presence of black scholars in academia isn’t just inaccurate. It’s evidence of implicit bias–and it deserves to be called out.

 

 

 

More Of This…

I don’t know about all of you, but I get positively desperate for good news. The American political landscape is so bleak–every day, it seems there is a new report of really egregious wrongdoing: trashing the environment, screwing over students and public education, kicking hungry children off food stamps,  the President’s corruption and conflicts of interest…the list is endless, and it’s all aided and abetted by the propaganda that litters the Internet.

As we head into 2020, the effectiveness of that propaganda has been enhanced by “deep fakes”–doctored photographs that look so real the distortions are difficult to detect.

Rather than sighing and wondering how effective this new method of disinformation will prove to be, Governing Magazine reports that a couple of universities are doing something about it.

If you were under any illusion that online hooey peaked with the 2016 election, brace yourself for the era of “deepfakes” — fabricated videos so realistic they can put words in the mouths of politicians or anyone else that they never said.

As the 2020 election approaches, a new University of Washington initiative aims to combat the wave of increasingly sophisticated digital counterfeiting and misinformation coursing through social media and give the public tools to sort fact from fakery.

The Center for an Informed Public (CIP) has been seeded with $5 million from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, part of a $50 million round of grants awarded this year to 11 U.S. universities and research institutions to study how technology is transforming democracy.

The mission is to use the new research to help everyone vulnerable to being fooled by online manipulation — whether it’s schoolkids unsure about which news sites are trustworthy or baby boomers uncritically sharing fraudulent news stories on Facebook.

Kate Starbird is a UW associate professor and one of the CIP’s principal researchers. She has spent years studying the spread of conspiracy theories and deliberate misinformation in the wake of crisis events like school shootings and the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, and she says this is “not a K-12 problem. It’s a K-99 problem.”

Starbird and other researchers have examined millions of tweets and discovered how various actors, including foreign intelligence operatives, have worked to intensify political divisions in America.

In 2016, for example, Twitter accounts associated with Russia’s Internet Research Agency impersonated activists supportive and critical of the #BlackLivesMatter movement. Tweets from those accounts became some of the most widely shared. “Russian agents did not create political division in the United States, but they were working to encourage it,” Starbird recounted in a Medium post about the research.

Fighting the bots and trolls and pervasive propaganda is essential–but it won’t be easy.

The CIP grew in part out of the UW’s popular course, “Calling BS in the Age of Big Data,” created two years ago by West and biology professor Carl Bergstrom. The course is in such demand that its 160 seats filled within one minute of registration opening this quarter, West said.

Sam Gill, who leads community and national initiatives for the Knight Foundation, said he sees the new UW center as “sort of like the first public health school in the country for the Internet.”

The link between quality information and public health is not merely metaphorical, as Internet-fueled misconceptions about vaccines have contributed to outbreaks of measles and other diseases once thought eradicated. An ongoing measles outbreak in Samoa has killed 50 children.

Similarly, misinformation has made it harder for the U.S. to combat climate change, which scientists predict will wreak havoc in the coming decades unless big cuts are made in greenhouse-gas emissions. Emma Spiro, an assistant professor in the Information School and another CIP researcher, said there is already talk of collaboration with the UW’s EarthLab research institute to address climate knowledge.

I don’t think it is hyperbole to say that there is a war being fought between fact and deliberate fiction. We need new weapons in order to win that war.

I hope this very promising effort to create those weapons will be joined by many others.