I taught English in junior high (8 years) and high school (25 years) during my career, so it caught my attention how “communication problem” has become a trope in news broadcasts: The areas causing messaging difficulties have included politicians’ explaining legislation, school officials’ informing parents about curricular choices relating to race, health officials’ motivating/mandating the public to follow the latest pandemic guidelines, the police/gun owners’ clarity on exactly what constitutes “self-defense,” and everyone’s accepting that Joe Biden won the last presidential election. Our ability to impart objective information seems to be eroding more quickly than our shorelines—oh, I forgot that scientists have struggled to communicate the dire environmental horrors which will become commonplace (have already become, in many cases) unless we change our behavior/technology to avoid destroying the only planet on which we can currently survive. At a time when consensus and unity on what we need to do has existential implications, we keep stumbling on what should be a given—agreeing where we are right now.
And I am part of a group (past and present educators) which bears at least some responsibility for this situation. We are legally bound to send our children to school for at least eleven years (K-10 in Illinois) with most of them in the classroom for several years more. Over those many hours, kids are supposed to be learning the basics of what it takes to function in our society, that which we have determined they need to know in order to participate positively in our society. Given all that effort spent drilling these basics, why is it that we are so divided on just what the facts are?
To understand why institutional organizations, like schools, exert less influence than before, we have to look at public education’s evolution as a reflection of the community it has served over the years. Before the information era (which came to dominance with the ubiquity of personal computers in our homes), the Pre-Digital Age invested schools with substantial authoritative power. One of the key sources of our communal skill and knowledge was public education, and everyone pretty much accepted teachers as respected (if largely ignored and unsupervised) experts on what our kids needed to know and how to get that cultural legacy into their heads. While Mom and Dad might have been amazingly ignorant about what was going on in our baby-boomer classrooms, we kids all knew there would be hell to pay if we got in trouble with our teachers. “Our side” would be quickly dismissed once our trespass had been relayed, and there would be a consequence (i.e., punishment) which would land on us, often literally. When it came to teacher-vs-student situations, the student lost almost every time, even if the only message the teacher sent was a mediocre grade. So, whether or not we liked our teachers, we came to accept that all adults assumed schools knew better than we did and that to dispute their power was futile.
Please don’t view this description as yearning for a pseudo-idealistic, nostalgia-drenched educational utopia which we need to replicate. I have no desire to advocate anything based on some mutated “Make American Education Great Again” model. I’m just trying to explain how it was—good and bad—before our current situation. There were many poor practices going on in the 1960s and 70s when I went to school, to say nothing of the social upheavals created by the erosion of faith in other institutions, as evidenced by the unpopularity of the Viet Nam war and changing attitudes on race and gender. In middle-class suburban schools, however, teachers were pretty influential to students in a way that was much more absolute than it is today.
We all know what happened next: From the 1980s on, access to information exploded, and that deluge has only increased exponentially every year since that first personal computer (PC) came home. Not only did that PC’s capabilities grow at volcanic rates, but its size contracted to the point where most of us have over a million times more computing power on our phones than NASA did for the Apollo 11 moon trip in 1969. And while we can debate the various pros and cons of this info torrent, there can be little doubt that public education’s share of “factual authority” experienced significant shrinkage as it became easier and easier to find different, often contradictory, information elsewhere. Couple that ease of access with professional social media manipulators’ addictive propaganda flourishes, and it seems inevitable that we would wind up with parents’ berating and recalling school board members because they know better how to run the schools.
Nor is that to say those aggressive parents don’t have some valid points to make when it comes to schools’ including them in decisions which impact their children. Those of us who taught in the 1970s (I started in 1979) recall the wholesale warehousing of special education students, regardless of their needs, in separate and completely unequal classrooms until parent advocates got the laws changed, and regulations (many, many regulations) followed. All our institutions need oversight, evaluation, and regular updating; you’re either moving forward or backward. Remaining static (which of course was the dream of every administrator for whom I ever worked) just isn’t possible. So constant assessment of whatever data you can accumulate is necessary and should be an automatic part of any system’s structure.
Our current situation, however, has fractured because there is so much more data available than any one individual or organization can possibly assimilate. That means we have to use filters which cull the pile of data to more manageable levels. Unfortunately, those filter tools—intentionally or not—have led us to limited, slanted information streams tailored more and more, as the algorithms learn from our selections, to our biases. Not only do those tools guide us to sources which only agree with our prejudices, they seek out opinions and views ever more extreme in the hopes of holding our interest longer, while completely eliminating those annoying ideas which come from those who think differently than we do, which we instantly delete should they somehow darken our feed. Thus, we never have to invest the slightest effort in understanding why anyone would be stupid enough not to agree with us.
We’ve all been guilty of this on some issues in our lives—sports allegiances, popular music genres, and fashion styles have, do, and will continue to separate people into distinct camps: To this White Sox devotee, for example, all opinions on baseball from those misguided enough to care about the Cubs are completely suspect, if not outright ridiculous, regardless of facts, experience, or reality in general. Oh, and would you fashionistas shut the hell up about my lousy cargo shorts—they’re functional, dammit! This kind of lunacy, however, when attached to more meaningful things like abortion, health care, the environment, and governmental services (like the police) seems amazingly short-sighted. Will this separation and division continue to pollute what it means to be human to the point where we need to know the political affiliation of everyone with whom we deal in order to interact with them? “Sorry, I don’t go to Republican doctors.” (Actually, we’re already there, to a certain extent, in that I couldn’t imagine trusting Dr. Rand Paul [ophthalmologist] with my eyes or Dr. Ben Carson [neurosurgeon] with my brain.) Do we need Republican-only restaurants to be sure the servers won’t spit in our food or Democratic hair stylists to guarantee our dos will really be cutting edge, depending on whom we support in 2022?
Sadly, that kind of absurdity sounds less and less inane as we continue to bore down on our personal truth with no willingness to hear anything from outside our hardened silos. The validity of facts has always been dependent on their sources’ reliability, but we’ve been erecting barriers in the wrong places and giving way too much weight to irrelevant, dumb criteria in how we evaluate those sources. We’ve also institutionalized the habit of dismissing anything, regardless of how valid, supported, or true it is should we determine its source comes from the “wrong” side. “With both Chris Wallace and Shepard Smith no longer on Fox, why would I ever be interested in what that dumpster fire of a network broadcasts? Tucker Carlson? Puh-leeze!”
And that, my friends, leaves us in our current situation, where creative, aspirational humans are frustrated and blunted at every turn by other frustrated, blunted, creative, aspirational humans armed with a completely different set of facts and expert opinion which “proves” they are right and urges that those who disagree should be demonized, attacked, rooted out, and banished from their seat at the table of humanity. Sadly, there aren’t even any glib or facile solutions to this problem which claim an easy solution even though they achieve absolutely nothing except to make us feel morally superior when we share the condescending, fluffy meme on our social media feed.
This issue, I’m afraid, has evolved its divisive, habit-forming nature to the point where most of us cannot imagine how anyone could possibly be so stupid (morally bankrupt, uninformed, illogical, blind, poorly reared, uneducated, ignorant, privileged, entitled, evil, and/or any other negative trait we can hang on our enemies) to disagree with us on whatever issue is currently stirring passions. So, we dismiss entire groups of people as irrelevant and moronic—not exactly a recipe for creating more empathy and compassion, to say nothing of finding a path to compromises which lead to progress (if that poor word can even be used anymore without political connotations). I do think there are some slow, incremental, long-term things we all have to do in order to move beyond this stage in our social/cultural development, but we’ve certainly set a pretty nasty, self-perpetuating system in motion. It’s kinda like the creeping Charlie in my front lawn: It’s impossible to eradicate quickly without resorting to some serious herbicidal poison—the kind I’m unwilling to go anywhere near given its toxic side effects, just as I can’t accept that the only way forward is to shun and belittle everyone who voted for Donald Trump. So next time, we’ll pull on some gardening gloves, pad our fragile knees, and get down on the lawn to start weeding. Until then, if you’d like to see some ideas on how public education can be improved, you can find excerpts from my e-book here.