Thursday, March 10, 2016

Will an ideal citizenry elect Trump as President?

No chocolates this term.
No thank-you card.
No wedding invite.

Yet, the term is a huge success.

On his own, a student who is usually very quiet, said that he realized that the course was not merely about the content.  It was, as he put it, "to learn skills to determine many of the ideas we must know."  Once they have the skills, they can then go about learning whatever they want to learn about.  I was nearly overcome with emotion when I heard him articulate that.

Every term I tell students, over and over again, that they should not think of coming to my classes--or even attending the university--in order to gain information.  "All the information is out there" I tell them.  The educated person will know how to interpret that information and make meaning out of it.

This becomes increasingly important with every passing minute, given the rate at which we are producing information.  And, of course, important for a healthy democracy as well.  But, do the people have the skills to work with the information in order to be the ideal citizenry that Plato and Jefferson imagined?
The problem of course is that having more information available, even more accurate information, isn’t what is required by the ideal. What is required is that people actually know and understand that information, and there are reasons to think we are no closer to an informed citizenry understood in that way than we ever have been. Indeed, we might be further away.
I, too, worry that "we might be further away."  And that is not merely because of the unstoppable fascist in contemporary American politics.  It is from what I observe in the university, which is consistent with what the author notes:
One reason for thinking so is that searching the Internet can get you to information that would back up almost any claim of fact, no matter how unfounded. It is both the world’s best fact-checker and the world’s best bias confirmer — often at the same time. Group polarization on the Internet is a fact of digital life. Liberals “friend” liberals and share liberal-leaning media stories and opinions with them; conservatives friend conservatives, and do the same.
And the flow of digital information is just as prone to manipulation as its content
Faculty, students, neighbors, it doesn't matter where I look, more than always people seem to prefer their comfortable echo chambers.  How can that be possible in this information age, you ask?  The internet "is both the world’s best fact-checker and the world’s best bias confirmer — often at the same time."  It is simply awful.

Anyway, why the worry that we might be further away from the ideal citizenry?  The author, who is "a professor of philosophy and the director of the Humanities Institute’s Public Discourse Project at the University of Connecticut," offers two reasons, and both appeal to me:
First, as Jason Stanley and others have emphasized recently, appeals to ideals can be used to undermine those very ideals. People on both the left and the right tell one another that “the information is right there; people just aren’t paying attention to the facts (Google it!).” The very availability of information can make us think that the ideal of the informed citizen is more realized than it is — and that, in turn, can actually undermine the ideal, making us less informed, simply because we think we know all we need to know already.
What a strange behavior, right?

The second reason is even more worrisome:
Second, the danger is that increasing recognition of the fact that Googling can get you wherever you want to go can make us deeply cynical about the ideal of an informed citizenry — for the simple reason that what counts as an “informed” citizen is a matter of dispute. We no longer disagree just over values. Nor do we disagree just over the facts. We disagree over whose source — whose fountain of facts — is the right one.
And once disagreement reaches that far down, the daylight of reason seems very far away indeed.
Recognizing these, I design the assignments carefully.  Because, I could otherwise easily end up legitimizing crazy sources out there.  Like the ones that deny climate change. Or the ones that question natural selection and evolution.  Or how higher education has been reduced to a ponzi scheme.  Oh, wait, the ponzi scheme is for real--but, not in my classes though, as that quiet student demonstrated.

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