Educating for Democracy in a Digital Age


4.4.11 | One-third of American kids can’t explain what the Declaration of Independence is about, and “It’s in the title!” former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor told the audience at last week’s Educating for Democracy in a Digital Age conference in Washington, D.C..

O’Connor was one of several speakers who asserted that the decline of civic education in and out of school is partly to blame for this embarrassing lack of basic understanding of civic history and civic responsibilities. The way civics is taught also came under fire. (Remarks are available here.)

“Civics today is dusty, boring, and dull,” acknowledged Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. “We need to update it.”

Civics classes, as we know them, are “a relic of the 20th century” and “words like ‘duty’ have become the chopped kale of our diet,” said panelist Ray Suarez, senior correspondent of PBS “News Hour.”

Agreeing that civics, and innovation in teaching civics, has languished in the rush to teach to the test in the math and reading-dominated era of No Child Left Behind was the easy part. More complicated is figuring out how to get kids fired up again.

As the title of the conference suggests, digital media offers one way to do that. When more than 90 percent of kids use digital media every day, speaker after speaker said it makes sense to start there and grab their interest where they “live.” 

Digital media gives kids the tools to connect with one another and the broader world. With guidance from mentors, parents and teachers, digital media enables students to hook into the organizations and groups that are leading the charge to create change at any level.

Consider iCivics, spearheaded by O’Connor.  iCivics allows kids to absorb the tenets of how the three branches of our government work while playing an online game.  As Anantha Pai, a third-grade teacher in the suburbs of Minneapolis, told me, “It changes the dynamic in the classroom.” It also changes the game for teachers—they can download curriculum based on the game that aligns with their own state’s standards, and they can find forums and online support for implementing the game in their classrooms.

Another online project uses the Harry Potter phenomenon to connect kids to global issues. Kids who join the Harry Potter Alliance belong to a fan group that acts as heroes in the real world, says its founder, Andrew Slack.

Dumbledore’s Army “awakens the world to the perils of climate change or issues like inequality,” Slack told the audience.

With 85 chapters and 50 volunteer staff, it’s making an impact on and offline.  The fan group raised enough money through small donations to send five cargo planes to Haiti following the devastating earthquake, donated 55,000 books to communities in need, and came in first in the Chase Bank Community Giving contest. 


Grace Mitchell with her parents, Annie and Kirk Mitchell.

One teen who is signing on for Dumbledore’s Army is Grace Mitchell, 14, who was one of four winners the Judge Malcolm Richard Wilkey Civics Competition, for her essay on a civic hero—her mom, who as Grace says, “goes above and beyond not just as mother and caregiver of a child with a rare disease, juvenile myositis, but also as a spokesperson for Cure JM and other organizations.” 

For Grace, online worlds are a lifeline, as she suffers from juvenile myositis, a rare autoimmune disease causing extreme fatigue and weak, painful muscles, among other serious complications. As a result, she misses about one-third of the school year.

Her online connections, she says, “keep me in touch with my friends and kids around the world. Even though I’ve never met many of these kids, I feel like I know them,” she says.

She can use digital media to keep up on assignments, chat with friends, email and text teachers, and update her status on her mom’s Facebook page. (There is a raging debate in her family about when she is old enough to have her own Facebook page—and it appears Grace might be winning that battle.) Asked how she might have coped 15 years ago without all these tools, she was stumped. “I suppose I would have had to call them all!”

Grace also used social media tools to rally to raise awareness for Juvenile Myositis. Her efforts won her a Pepsi Refresh “Do Good” grant for the Cure JM Foundation. The Pepsi Refresh Project gives away millions each month to fund refreshing ideas that change the world, one community at a time. Grace spent the summer rallying her online community to vote for her cause—and she won. She is now promising to put that energy toward Dumbledore’s Army.

From documenting the problems in their own communities to using social media to join a cause, kids can connect to issues and one another in ways not possible before. But digital citizenship does not just happen on its own. It needs connectors to offline action, and it also requires new and expanded literacies to navigate the digital realm effectively.

These literacies include “crap detection,” as Howard Rheingold has called the ability to judge the credibility of information online and wade through the difference between just making a statement of “fact” and backing it up with evidence—a key skill in old-fashioned rhetoric classes. Digital literacy also requires the ability and comfort level to make deliberate forays outside the “balkanized communities” of like minds that spring up online..

In the end, panelists and members of the audience called for a “race to the top” for civics education as a first step in sparking the needed reinvigoration of civics curriculum in and out of the classroom.

“Being an American citizen is no big deal to too many of our kids today,” said Lee Hamilton, a former Congressman from Indiana who now leads the Center on Congress at Indiana University. In some respects, that’s the fault of our founding fathers. They designed a government, with its checks and balances, that leaves the impression that its citizens don’t have to do anything to ensure its viability.

Yet a complacent citizenry invites trouble, warned Hamilton, recalling the words of French philosopher Bertrand de Jouvenel: “A society of sheep must in time beget a government of wolves.” 

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