By Timothy P. Williams
The political unrest on display in Washington, DC on Jan. 6 demonstrated that we are a democracy in turmoil — a body-politic flirting with authoritarianism.
We must do something.
The atrocities at the Capitol that fateful day leave us wondering how such a thing could have happened and how we should address it. Recently, there have been calls for more patriotism, more civics instruction, and even proposed legislation to make sure our young people understand how to preserve our republic.
A recent Bloomberg opinion piece, Democracy Needs to Be Taught in School: If ever there was a moment to revive civics instruction, isn’t this it? by Professor Andrea Gabor, who framed the insurrection bluntly:
“The riot was just the latest and most appalling evidence that a wide swath of the American public doesn’t understand democratic norms. That’s why it should serve as a sputnik moment for an ambitious revival of civics instruction along with expanded training in news literacy.”
Gabor correctly emphasizes the importance of civics education, which was – and still is – taught in schools. She appears to believe, though, that “news literacy” instruction is absent. Indeed it was prior to the Internet Age when the average insurrectionist attended school. Information literacy is now systemic throughout all disciplines.
During their formal educations, the rioters received civics instruction. The real concern is that they may not have received formal information literacy instruction.
NPR compiled a database of more than 200 people who have been arrested for their actions during the insurrection. A review of that data reveals that the youngest is 20 years old, and the oldest is 72 years old. The average insurrectionist is 40.5 years old and attended school decades ago, prior to the Internet Age.
The average insurrectionist never had the opportunity to be formally schooled in how to discern fact from fiction online. Worse yet, they never received formal instruction in how to critically evaluate ideas and information they discover online. Like today’s students, they received civics instruction. Unlike today’s students, online information literacy was never part of their formal education.
Therein lies the problem.
The greatest advantage of online information is that everyone may contribute ideas and viewpoints. The greatest disadvantage of online information is that everyone may contribute ideas and viewpoints, even though they may not be based on facts or reality. That is how modern-day conspiracy theories are born and propagate.
The inability to think critically about online information is how people succumb to conspiracy theories.
The most obvious example of this tragedy is QAnon and its followers. This discredited movement is responsible for amplifying unfounded conspiracy theories and misinformation that has prompted people to take such extreme actions as storming the Capitol.
The Q-embracing rioters attended school at a time when Professor Gabor implies schools devoted more time to civics instruction. Presumably, the rioters defied their solid civics education and tried, at a minimum, to disrupt the constitutionally mandated transfer of power.
Therefore, it was not a lack of civics education that fueled the insurrection; it was a lack of the ability to discern fact from fiction, fact-based opinions from opinions based on deliberate disinformation.
As a former Social Studies teacher, I can support Professor Gabor’s call for a systemic increase in civics education and information literacy.
Our current political quagmire, however, is not well-explained by current educational practices. Rather, we need to figure out a way to educate some of today’s adults in the nuances of discerning fact from fiction and to think critically.
Fortunately, today’s students and recent graduates benefit from being educated during the Internet Age, and we must continue to emphasize civics education and information literacy. That is simple enough; the difficult task is figuring out how to make information literacy available to those who attended school prior to the Internet Age.
We need not worry too much about the young people; they will save us from this nonsense. We should worry more about some members of my generation.