Teaching people to write is a bad idea! Writing extinguishes memory, stifles the free flow and development of ideas by freezing them in text, provides the semblance of wisdom without real depth, and, therefore, creates superficial and boring people. In short, writing destroys the discourse necessary for deep learning. This is essentially the argument Socrates made 2500 years ago to his friend Phaedrus, who extolled the virtues of a discourse on friendship written by the orator Lysias. Phaedrus had a copy of the speech with him and testified that Lysias had covered the subject comprehensively and, he believed, “no one could have spoken better or more exhaustively.”1 Socrates, however, disagreed. He had questions about several elements of Lysias’s argument, and without the author present saw no way to explore those. For Socrates, discourse (and therefore learning) was a living thing, a conversation in which participants could ask questions, press for meaning, and make arguments. Writing, he believed, stifled all of that by separating the author from his or her words, and, therefore, was anti-educational. What appeared to Phaedrus to be an educational innovation was, in Socrates’s view, a disaster.
I know just how Socrates felt. Digital media is often touted as a democratizing force and a boon to civic participation, but I have serious doubts. Whether it be reading the nasty comments of trolls at the end of news articles online, learning about the secret appropriation and misuse of digital data to manipulate public opinion and, in particular, electoral politics, or watching a vicious and superficial dispute on Twitter, my observations of civic engagement in the contemporary world leads me to a Socratic view of digital media: it is antithetical to informed civic discourse! And I am not alone. Writing in the Globe and Mail recently, British historian Niall Ferguson argued, “Sadly, over the past two years, it has gradually become apparent that the Internet may pose a bigger threat to democracies than to dictators.”2
While it would be nice to crawl into my curmudgeon’s shell and ignore the innovations of technology, I really can’t and still claim to be a civic educator. Socrates may have hated writing, but we know that, ironically, because Plato preserved his arguments in written from. Writing did not disappear because the Athenian philosopher railed against it; it became pervasive and most of us would agree it has not undermined thought or destroyed education. Similarly, digital media are here to stay and will shape our civic life in important ways.
That is not to say Socrates’s concerns about writing were all wrong. Writers do often treat important concepts superficially, use rhetorical techniques to distort arguments, and make very selective, and often inappropriate, use of evidence. In short, they always privilege a particular view of the world and often descend into propaganda. Furthermore, in many contemporary societies published written works are often imbued with an authority that makes them immune to critique. How many times have we heard the expression, “look it up in the book,” when someone wants to authoritatively end an argument? Socrates was right; all of these things, as well as others, make writing a potentially manipulative and dangerous tool both for education and citizenship.
On the other hand, writing allows us to expand the number of people reached by particular ideas and arguments. It often provokes us to reconsider old ideas and think in new ways. Powerful writing can and does move us, inspire us, and change us. Good writing brings us into contact with new worlds, and enriches our common humanity.
In the same way, digital media has the potential to broaden the human conversation by including more voices over multiple formats and platforms. It can put us in direct touch with people, cultures, and ideas from around the world, and allow us to express ourselves in ways unthinkable just a few years ago. Like writing, digital media also has its downsides. It can be used to invade privacy, provide a megaphone for hate, and reduce complex ideas and arguments to 280 characters. So, what are we as civic educators to make of this innovation? How can we help young citizens use digital technology to enhance their participation in civic life?
The way we have approached writing in education provides important guidance. Virtually all contemporary Language Arts or English curricula in democratic societies promote a critical approach to literacy in general and writing in particular. They take seriously Socrates’s concerns about the power of writing to shape discourse and understandings, often in unexamined ways, and call for students to develop understandings and skills to use the medium both functionally (to read for information, for example), and critically (to understand how the medium works as a social enterprise). The middle level (grades 6-8) curriculum in Atlantic Canada describes critical literacy this way:
Critical literacy is the awareness of language as an integral part of social relations. It is a way of thinking that involves questioning assumptions; investigating how forms of language construct and are constructed by particular social, historical, cultural, political, and economic contexts; and examining power relations embedded in language and communication. It can be a tool for addressing issues of social justice and equity, for critiquing society and attempting to effect positive change.3
Critical literacy then, is not simply the ability to read and write; it is an essential aspect of informed civic engagement.
Critical literacy in digital media
In my view, we should approach digital media platforms in the same way, helping young citizens to use them both receptively and productively in critical ways related to fostering informed democratic deliberation and action. Recently I have been asked to review sets of competencies proposed for digital citizenship and have been quite distressed. I notice that they focus on two areas: online etiquette and Internet safety. The former concentrates on teaching students to be polite in digital environments, the latter on mitigating the dangers of cyberbullying, luring, sexting and the like. While both of these are important, neither is related to civic engagement or takes a particularly critical approach to working with and in digital media.
Ken Osborne made the point years ago in this publication that good citizenship involves much more than being a nice person.4 Below, I suggest two dark clouds and corresponding silver linings for fostering a critical civic work in digital environments.
1. “Filter bubbles”
Our digital platforms know us well. They collect demographic and personal information about us, continually track our online activities, and target our newsfeeds, popups and advertisements to fit with our evolving profile. This can be quite efficient as we are fed news from sites that share what the relevant algorithm calculates we’ll appreciate. I don’t get ads for acne cream and my granddaughters don’t get them for senior living. A few years ago, in a book and TED talk, Eli Pariser warned about this phenomenon which he called “filter bubbles.” They can make life more comfortable and easier, but they are lousy preparation for civic life, which is centred on engaging with others who come from different perspectives and backgrounds. Filter bubbles, whether created by online formulas or our own voluntary sorting of ourselves into groups and neighbourhoods of like-minded people, create barriers to effective associational and civic life, and are often fostered by uncritical engagement with digital media.
The silver lining, though, is that while Google and Facebook think they know us, they do not control us unless we allow them to. Digital media allow for the possibility of hearing from myriad others who do not share our worldviews and perspectives. Young citizens can be helped to cast off their filter bubbles, and both engage with people and ideas from diverse perspectives and cultures as well as use digital platforms to share their own stories. Two of my colleagues in the Faculty of Education at the University of New Brunswick, Casey Burkholder and Matt Rogers, engage students in using film and cellphilms to narrate aspects of their lives.5 These include navigating complex identities as minority individuals in an aggressively monolithic society, as well as struggling to make sense of and handle things like family violence, racism, and sexuality. I am an educated person and have read a lot about all of these phenomena, but watching and hearing these young people tell their stories moves me in ways that are much more visceral. My empathetic understanding is always enhanced, and that is a critical aspect of democratic civic dispositions. Digital media can isolate and insulate us from engaging with difference, but it can also enhance perspective taking and empathy, and make it possible to connect with diverse others more deeply and meaningfully than ever before. Good civic education will foster understanding of the former and facility with the latter.
2. Demagogues, liars, and liberators
In December 2016, Edgar M. Welch charged into a pizza restaurant in Washington, D.C., with several guns.6 He was there to liberate children being held as part of a child abuse ring. Except there were no children there, and the sex abuse ring was a figment of the imagination created by demagogues and widely distributed on the Internet by malevolent or ignorant sycophants. This was a particularly vivid example of the potential impact of so-called “fake news” that permeates the Web. People and “bots” spread false information about politics, social policy, medical treatments, relationships, and just about every other aspect of human life. This information is absorbed, manipulated, and passed on by many others. We know, for example, that in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, fake rallies were advertised as a ploy to bring opponents of particular policies or candidates into the street in droves and exacerbate already simmering tensions.
On the other hand, digital media allows incredible access to the best ideas in the world. In a very simple example, I regularly ask my graduate students to email scholars whose work they are encountering. More often than not, these academics write back and frequently establish an ongoing relationship that takes my students deeper into the research areas they are exploring. They become engaged in cutting-edge conversations in their fields. That is only one of the possibilities digital media has to enhance our engagement with new and evolving ideas and phenomena.
While the dark cloud of “fake news” is exacerbated by digital media, it is not really anything new. Critics of democracy in the days of Plato and Socrates worried that silver-tongued demagogues could manipulate the mob in dangerous ways through distorting reality or presenting falsehoods. Citizens have always had to learn to separate the wheat from the chaff in civic discourse; while the medium might be different in the digital age, the mission isn’t. Students can be taught to ask some of the same kinds of questions long suggested by advocates of critical literacy: Who created this source? What is/are their purposes? What inferences can I draw from this source? What perspective does this source ask me to assume? What viewpoint is presented in this source? What does this source omit or distort? How is my own response related to what is presented by the source?7
From the beginning, liberators and charlatans have been part of the democratic process. It has always been, and will continue to be essential that young citizens develop the critical facilities to separate one from the other and to use digital media and other forms to engage in work for the common good.
Civics education curricula around the world credit Socrates’s fellow citizens in Ancient Athens with establishing the first democracy. The trial and execution of Socrates, grounded, Plato argued, in the manipulation of public opinion, demonstrated it wasn’t perfect. Democracy has evolved considerably since those early manifestations, particularly with regard to who is included in the civic polity. It still isn’t perfect, and many of the challenges it faces are similar to the ones faced in Ancient times. The project of civic education in the 21st century is largely the same as it was in Athens: helping young citizens deal with the complexities, nuances, and shifting nature of power and politics in a world that often prefers simplicity and certainty. The mechanisms citizens use to engage have changed, but the underlying project is the same.
First published in Education Canada, December 2018
2 Ferguson, Niall. 2018. “Social Networks Are Creating a Global Crisis of Democracy.” Globe and Mail, 2018. https://www.theglobeandmail.com/opinion/niall-ferguson-social-networks-and-the-global-crisis-of-democracy/article37665172/.
3 New Brunswick Department of Education, English Language Arts: Middle Level. (Fredericton: Educational Program & Services Branch, n.d.), p. 103.
4 Ken Osborne, “Political and Citizenship Education: Teaching for civic engagement.” Education Canada 45, no. 1 (2005): 13–16.
5 For more information about this project, see Casey Burkholder’s article, “The Kids are Alright,” in this issue of Education Canada.
6 Cecilia Kang and Adam Goldman, “In Washington Pizzeria Attack, Fake News Brought Real Guns,” The New York Times (January 20, 2018), sec. Business Day. www.nytimes.com/2016/12/05/business/media/comet-ping-pong-pizza-shooting-fake-news-consequences.html.
7 Adapted from International Reading Association, and National Council of Teachers of English, Standards for the English Language Arts (Newark, Delaware and Urbana Illinois: 1996), p. 15. www.ncte.org/library/NCTEFiles/Resources/Books/Sample/StandardsDoc.pdf?_ga=2.55023531.123604395.1532439582-324293061.1532439582