Good education of all citizens is a prerequisite for a well-functioning democracy
The solution to the problem of fake news is to improve the educational curriculum in elementary, middle, and secondary schools to include the teaching of critical-thinking skills. We now have a good handle on what these are and how to teach them, and well-tested programs (such as the educational materials offered by Edward De Bono’s Cognitive Research Trust) have been shown to be effective in several countries that have adopted the materials.
However, the problem with a good education—in particular, imparting the skills needed to analyze propositions and to make rational decisions based on evidence—is that many parents do not want their children to question any beliefs the parents hold dear, and in particular do not want those beliefs subjected to critical thinking. The GOP in Texas attempted to make it illegal to teach critical thinking skills in schools (for obvious reasons).
So many parents would fight the teaching of thinking skills (as in many communities parents have fought the teaching of evolution, which is as well established as the theory of gravity—indeed, we seem to understand evolution and its mechanisms better than we understand gravity).
The problem is that if a large segment of the public lacks critical thinking skills, they are vulnerable to manipulation. Earlier I pointed out an NPR interview with a producer of fake news. This particular question and answer is relevant:
When did you notice that fake news does best with Trump supporters?
Well, this isn’t just a Trump-supporter problem. This is a right-wing issue. Sarah Palin’s famous blasting of the lamestream media is kind of record and testament to the rise of these kinds of people. The post-fact era is what I would refer to it as. This isn’t something that started with Trump. This is something that’s been in the works for a while. His whole campaign was this thing of discrediting mainstream media sources, which is one of those dog whistles to his supporters. When we were coming up with headlines it’s always kind of about the red meat. Trump really got into the red meat. He knew who his base was. He knew how to feed them a constant diet of this red meat.
We’ve tried to do similar things to liberals. It just has never worked, it never takes off. You’ll get debunked within the first two comments and then the whole thing just kind of fizzles out.
It seems clear that conservatives, who generally seem to reject critical thinking skills, can be more easily duped. This is not good for our nation.
Josh Jones at Open Culture has an interesting 5-minute video and discussion about this issue.
How often have you heard the quote in one form or another? “Democracy is the worst form of Government,” said Winston Churchill in 1947, “except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time….” The sentiment expresses two cultural values many Americans are trained to hold uncritically: the primacy of democracy and the burdensomeness of government as a necessary evil.
In his new book Toward Democracy, Harvard historian James T. Kloppenberg argues that these ideas arose fairly recently with “mostly Protestants, at least at first,” notes Kirkus, in whose hands “the idea of democracy as a dangerous doctrine of the mob was reshaped into an ideal.” Much of this transformation “occurred in the former British colonies that became the United States, where, at least from a British nobleman’s point of view, mob rule did take hold.”
The modern revamping of democracy into a sacred set of universal institutions has defined our understanding of the term. Just as the West has co-opted classical Athenian architecture as symbolic of democratic purity, it has often co-opted Greek philosophy. But as anyone who has ever read Plato’s Republic knows, Greek philosophers were highly suspicious of democracy, and could not conceive of a functioning egalitarian society with full suffrage and freedom of speech.
Socrates, especially, says Alain de Botton in the School of Life video above, “was portrayed in the dialogues of Plato as hugely pessimistic about the whole business of democracy.” In the ideal society Socrates constructs in the Republic, he famously argues for restricted freedom of movement, strict censorship according to moralistic civic virtues, and a guardian soldier class and the rule of philosopher kings.
In Book VI, Socrates points out the “flaws of democracy by comparing a society to a ship.” If you were going on a sea voyage, “who would you ideally want deciding who was in charge of the vessel, just anyone, or people educated in the rules and demands of seafaring?” Unless we wish to be obtusely contrarian, we must invariably answer the latter, as does Socrates’ interlocutor Adeimantus. Why then should just any of us, without regard to level of skill, experience, or education, be allowed to select the rulers of a country?
The grim irony of Socrates’ skepticism, de Botton observes, is that he himself was put to death after a vote by 500 Athenians. Rather than the typical elitism of purely aristocratic thinking, however, Socrates insisted that “only those who had thought about issues rationally and deeply should be let near a vote.” Says de Botton, “We have forgotten this distinction between an intellectual democracy and a democracy by birthright. We have given the vote to all without connecting it to wisdom.” (He does not tell us whom he means by “we.”)
For Socrates, so-called “birthright democracy” was inevitably susceptible to demagoguery. Socrates “knew how easily people seeking election could exploit our desire for easy answers” by telling us what we wanted to hear. We should heed Socrates’ warnings against mob rule and the dangers of demagoguery, de Botton argues, and consider democracy as “something that is only ever as good as the education system that surrounds it.” It’s a potent idea, and one often repeated with reference to a similar warning from Thomas Jefferson.
What de Botton does not mention in his short video, however, is that Socrates also advised that his rulers lie to the citizenry, securing their trust not with false promises and seductive blandishments, but with ideology. . .
The whole idea of a liberal arts education is to impart the intellectual skills required to free oneself: skills of language (reading, writing, speaking, and listening effectively), skills in analysis and reasoning, knowledge of history and philosophy, and so on. Skills are acquired by practice and improved with experience.
Unfortunately, education is the skills and knowledge required to be an effective citizen—the liberal arts—are being systematically displaced by the skills and knowledge required to be a good employee. Education has for the most part become training, focused on occupational and professional skills alone, which creates a huge vulnerability in our society, a vulnerability that will now have serious repercussions.