As Americans gear up to celebrate the 4th of July, we face some unsettling questions about the state of our polity. One of the most interesting is: What should the next generation of civics education look like? A recent essay series at The Atlantic offers some ideas about how we can prepare future generations for public participation in a democracy, in particular a democracy that exists in an era of rapid technological change. This post discusses some of their ideas, and how they can be implemented in the classroom using WorldView Software’s Civics program.In the introduction to the series, Adrienne LaFrance, Irina Raicu, and Eric Goldman write:
Everyone who participated in this series believes there is hope yet—for democracy, and for the institutions that support it. They also believe that technology can help, though it will take time and money to make it so. Democracy can still thrive in this uncertain age, they argue, but not without deliberate and immediate action from the people who believe it is worth protecting.
Debbie Chachra, a professor at Olin College of Engineering, writes in Gratitude for Invisible Systems about the complexity of the systems that undergird modern life, and the need for raising awareness of how systems both physical and regulatory work to fulfill the bottom layers of the pyramid of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs; to keep us safe, fed, and housed as well as informed and connected:
When we think about caring for our neighbors, we think about local churches, and charities—systems embedded in our communities. But I see these technological systems [infrastructure] as one of the main ways that we take care of each other at scale…If I were to make a suggestion for how technology could be used to improve our democracy, I would want to make these systems more visible, understandable, and valued by the general public.
Any course of study in civics has to study how national institutions such as the constellation of bureaucracies work, but also how non-government linking institutions such as the media and political parties work. All of these institutions are complex creatures, worthy of lifetimes devoted to their study. But a good outline, such as in WorldView Software’s Civics program — with chapters on each national institution — is a good place to start.
Alexander B. Howard, deputy director of the Sunlight Foundation, makes the point in Protecting the Public Commons that civics education is inherently about active participation:
Every member of civil society and institution has a role in informing communities about how government works. A core component of a high school education should include teaching people how to judge risk, statistical literacy, and how to exercise our rights to access public information.
WorldView’s Civics starts students on the right path with projects requiring students to track down public data, and case studies demonstrating the kind of risks that are easiest to personalize, such as insurance, fraud, and consumer rights.
Finally, in the essay Lessons From Isaac Asimov’s Multivac, Shannon Vallor, a professor of philosophy at Santa Clara University writes that
Technology’s threat to democracy is not, at its root, that of poorly designed systems (though certainly design improvements can be made). The real threat is when technical progress is relied upon as a substitute for moral progress in cultivating the civic virtues, norms, and values that sustain functional democracies.
A related point is made over at The Scholarly Kitchen, where blogger Kent Anderson draws our attention to the algorithms that impact both what information is aggregated and what information we receive. Filter bubbles are just part of that picture, possibly even worse is the way algorithms act and interact:
…we have helped to create an information space that is controlled in ways we can only guess at. Algorithms that even their creators don’t fully understand are increasingly exerting control over what we know and believe to be true.
Vallor recommends that platforms such as social media stop assuming users possess civic virtues such as “integrity, courage, empathy, perspective, benevolence, and respect for truth” and start trying to cultivate them. Anderson warns us to be careful there as well: reasserting a human moral compass may require some version of Asimov’s “Three Laws of Robotics” updated for algorithms.
Educators can encourage the growth of these traits as well: WorldView’s Civics program has a theme called “Participating in Public Life” which gathers together materials (overview sections, art images, projects, etc.) that illustrate and/or require students to demonstrate civic virtues through active participation in politics and government, whether local or national, virtual or in-real-life.
Preview WorldView Software’s programs for free at http://www.worldviewsoftware.com/preview/