Head for the Edge, January 1998
Stanford professor Larry Cuban recently wrote: “…many parents and most teachers also believe strongly that their duty is to help turn the young into adults who act as caring, thoughtful citizens in a democracy. It is, they believe, their responsibility to help students learn the system, gain access to what a democracy offers, and achieve adulthood that will both contribute to and improve the community.” (“High-Tech Schools and Low-Tech Teaching.” Education Week, May 21, 1997)
So far, so good. Can’t agree more. But then Cuban continues: “While such a bald statement of belief in the democratic purpose of schooling hardly stirs more than a yawn from technophiles, it is this value that moves many to enter teaching. Few technology-minded reformers are willing to honor that core value.”
I guess Dr. Cuban and I know different technophiles. The earliest and most enthusiastic users of technology in our district have been teachers who have used it both for themselves and with students to learn about and participate in the democratic process.
Encouraged by our award-winning debate coach, high school students with borrowed university accounts were using the Internet to locate information long before any adult staff member in our district, including me. Our government and civics classes regularly use:
- Thomas - U.S. Congress on the Internet <http://thomas.loc.gov/>,
- Democracy.net <http://www.democracy.net/>,
- The League of Women Voters’ Project Vote Smart <http://www.vote-smart.org/>, and
- our state government web sites.
Effective democracy requires informed citizens and open channels of communication between the elected and the electors. Technology, especially in the form of digital networks, is enhancing both information access and communications. While the merits and dangers of a networked-enabled direct democracy have received lots of press, more pragmatic writers such as Don Tapscott list other compelling aspects of a wired democracy including virtual town halls, web-based debate and issue forums, and geographically unrestricted interest groups. (The Digital Economy. McGraw-Hill, 1996)
If what Cuban calls “the democratic purpose of schooling” is to continue and strengthen until it reverses the current trends of apathy and cynicism toward government and politics, all teachers need to understand the resources and experiences technologies like the Internet provide. And once accessed, teachers must have pedagogical skills to use those resources as springboards into thoughtful discussions, as evidence in student debate, and as examples of disinformation, spin-doctoring, and propaganda. Current hate groups need to be placed in historical context and students must learn how to interpret voting records. A citizenry that has the ability to locate, evaluate, use and communicate information is the only antidote to issue sound-bites, special interest lobbyists, radio talk shows, and big money campaigns. Congress’s misguided efforts to censor the Internet and mandate the Clipper chip have been in large part defeated by political activity generated in Cyberspace. At least a few technophiles aren’t yawning about the democratic process.
Judging by voter turn out in the last presidential election, it’s rather easy to conclude that the lecture/textbook mode of instruction has not done much to get the majority of Americans interested in politics. I wonder if the technophiles of Mr. Cuban’s acquaintance are not disinterested in democracy per se, but in the dry, didactic methods too often used when teaching it. I fail to see how anyone could yawn given the chance to “do” democracy and not just hear about it. And “to do democracy,” schools need the catalytic power of information technology used by teachers who can help students harness its immediacy and interactivity.
Jonathan Kozol in his book Savage Inequalities reminds us that there are two kinds of schools in this country: those training the future governors and those creating the future governed. Well-used technology can go a long way to help assure all citizens have the ability to participate in governing their own lives. And it won’t be long before technology is not just helpful in allowing this participation, but essential.