By: Nick Sawicki, Editor-In-Chief
I consider myself to be a relatively well-informed citizen on issues regarding politics and current events. My family religiously watches the news every night while eating dinner and often encourages “intellectual discourse” amongst one another. Although this invariably leads to heated political debates where my opinions are somehow always wrong, I am forced to think critically about the issues being presented in the news as well as the claims that my parents are making. This intellectual sparring that I partake in with my parents on a nightly basis has fostered my seemingly innate identity of civic involvement to the point where much of my daily life is centered around politics and political involvement. Between running a political blog, organizing mock debates as the president of my school’s political science club, and constantly flooding my Facebook friends’ activity feeds with news articles from the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, and Post Gazette, I have become a well-informed citizen who is able to form political opinions based on more than just attention-grabbing headlines. Although I am fortunate enough to have had individuals in my life who expanded my horizons and enabled me to look past the superficial facade that veils much of American politics and the media, I have come to realize that not every teenager has had the same push that I had.
Many students today lack the adequate guidance on how to properly navigate the sea of political information presented on social media to find informative articles written by reputable professionals. As a result, a significant portion of the Generation Z and Millennial generations are experiencing considerable deficits in their breadth of knowledge about current affairs and the public policy. Though social media provides a means for anyone and everyone to access political information with ease, many students today only focus on eye-catching headlines that appear in their activity feeds. Often times, teens will see such polarizing headlines and take them at face value, failing to read any further into the article for concrete evidence and analysis of the matter being discussed. The odds are high that if teens do happen to click on the inflammatory title, the article will be around 150 words long and heavily comprised of conjectural arguments. Chair of my school’s history department, Kyle Smith, vehemently believes that social media has had an “overwhelmingly negative influence” on teenagers today and their overall informedness about political issues. Smith expresses that social media has essentially “taken complicated issues” and “boiled them down” to nothing more than “memes, soundbites, and tweets.” He feels as though this does not adequately address the “level of depth and intellectual rigor needed to solve the broader issues” pressing our nation today. Cabot Phillips, Media Director of Campus Reform.org, illustrates this point during an interview with a number of George Washington University’s college students about President Trump’s tax plan. When asked about their “thoughts” on Trump’s proposed plan, many responded with generic cliches that it was “horrible for the middle and lower class” or that it was not the “most efficient or beneficial to the general populace.” However, when Phillips asked for their opinions on a specific provision of Trump’s plan where the “tax on small business would be lowered to 25%” but told them that this was part of Bernie Sanders’ tax plan, they all expressed their approval. What Phillips was able to expose was how students today formulate many of their political opinions based on polarizing headlines they are spoon-fed via social media. These headlines give people a general sense of what a particular issue is about, but don’t actually provide specific policy details for people to think critically about and develop a less superficial understanding of. This lack of critical thinking is a pandemic driven by media illiteracy and a lack of guidance from authoritative figures on such matters. Even at the private school I attend, where students are forced to think critically more so than in traditional high schools, much of the critical thinking we engage in is academic, with not so clear practical applications. As social media’s influence continues to grow, this becomes a pressing issue for both my school, and the future political literacy of its students.
While it is important to acknowledge that there exists a problem with social media illiteracy among the Generation Z and Millennial generations, it’s paramount that a solution be presented in order to address such a problem.
To combat the harmful effects that social media illiteracy has on the students today, I am proposing that schools require students to take one year of a current events course as one of their core classes – Poli Sci 101. Logistically, Poli Sci 101 would meet every school day for the duration of their Freshman year, much like a required year-long health course. Since much of the course content would encompass current events and have ties to historical or legal precedences, the school’s History Department would primarily be responsible for teaching Poli Sci 101.
The curriculum would to be equivalent in rigor to a typical humanities courses and include a diverse mix of both major and minor assessments. Minor assessments will incorporate assignments such as News Article Reviews where students find and read an article from a credible news source, write a one-page response, and present a summary and their response in class the next day. Other minor assessments may include nightly readings, fact-finding research, or in-class discussions. Major assessments will require more time to complete, and include any combination of essays and projects amounting to three assessments per term. This course is intended to facilitate collaboration and increase political discourse among one another and shouldn’t give tests as major assessments – traditional multiple choice standardized tests in the context of current events foster linear monodirectional thought that fails to introduce critical thinking in classrooms. Teachers should, instead, assign in-class timed essays or written responses in lieu of conventional tests. As the end of year final assessment, students would be tasked with involving themselves in a real-world political project, similar in application to a Ph.D. student’s dissertation. Students would work with their instructors to brainstorm ideas such as possible political events to attend, organizations to assist, campaigns to work on, etc. A topic proposal would first be drafted and approved by the teacher, followed by participation in the event/organization/campaign, and finally, an academic paper written about their experience.
In terms of content, students and teachers will examine contemporary world issues on a national and international scale and the implications that proposed solutions to each issue bring. The class will primarily be discussion based with much of the research for discussions happening at home. The introductory unit of the course will involve an activity in which students examine modern-day forms of media and the many sources of information available to the general populace from a skeptical perspective. They will be tasked with analyzing information that they find in news sources for bias, accuracy, and depth of knowledge presented in each news source. Each subsequent unit will focus on specific policy, both domestic and abroad, and the effect it will have on individuals in society.
Grades will be determined on a school by school basis, but it is recommended that the breakdown follow this format: Minor assessments will add up to a collective 25% of a term grade with major assessments comprising the other 75%. There is a minimum of 3 major assessments per term and a maximum of 5 so as not to overwhelm students. The final project will count towards 25% of the student’s final grade with the remaining 75% determined by the three/four-term grades received after each marking period.
Too many students today lack the proper guidance necessary to develop a solid foundation of civic responsibility and analytical thinking when it comes to politics. They read purposefully sensationalized headlines presented to them through social media and are unknowingly manipulated into thinking a certain way without having all of the facts presented to them. The main objective of Poli Sci 101 is to provide students with the tools necessary to dig deeper for facts and be natural skeptics whenever a news story is presented to them. As Junior and avid philosopher Matteo Seccomandi expresses, students today score a five out of ten when it comes to knowledge of political issues. “Everybody knows general facts but not reasons behind them or the implications.” Much of this is because “social media – Twitter, Instagram, Youtube, Facebook – creates more divisiveness than just providing the facts and letting you think for yourself” (Seccomandi). Having a designated class solely devoted to educating high schoolers on how to responsibly involve themselves in political affairs instills critical thinking in real-world applications and not merely the abstract. It also reaffirms the important idea that civic responsibility is equally important as other core classes such as foreign language, science, and math.
The curriculum of Poli Sci 101 is structured in such a way that it closely resembles other humanities courses which adds a level of seriousness and legitimacy. When students are accountable for turning in assignments of equal importance to their other core classes, there is an increase in the amount of effort provided and the quality of the content submitted. Lau informed me that at her previous school, a “Contemporary World Issues” elective was offered where the main objective of the course was to “provide students with a broad-based understanding of the contemporary world and to encourage them to be actively involved in the world around them.” She explained that although it was “one of the most challenging courses offered, it was also one of the most popular.” The reasoning behind implementing history department policy on major assessments and grading in Poli Sci 101 is not to discourage or punish students with an increased workload and responsibility, but rather challenge students to push their comfort zones on issues that they might not normally explore in depth. As Lau’s example shows, being challenged in such a manner does not automatically elicit a Pavlovian response every time politics is subsequently brought up; Lau expresses that “most students don’t make time in their day” to educate themselves in depth on political issues, “but when they do, they find it really interesting.”
If this structure and consistency is removed from Poli Sci 101 and the class is instead integrated into arbitrarily carved out times from other core classes, the entire idea loses merit. The reason Poli Sci 101 must be its own core class is because there is no cohesiveness or consistency when it is randomly incorporated into other classes. The issues of medical ethics being discussed in Biology class will not always relate to the tax proposals released by Congress which will only overwhelm students with the breadth of knowledge they are expected to know in conjunction with their class’s other assignments. Poli Sci 101 allows students to reasonably focus on one political issue at a time, go in depth in their research and discussions, and eventually draw connections between the events they learn about in the class.
Offering Poli Sci 101 as an elective is not a terrible solution to the issue of youth political illiteracy, but is inherently flawed in certain areas. When taken as an elective, students would only be exposed to a limited amount of current events and would not be able to explore many contemporary issues in depth due to the lack of available time. As such, the elective would not actually address the issue of students’ superficiality of political analysis, because the time constraints would force students to skim the surface of issues for a basic understanding, similar to what they already do on social media. Furthermore, students are not required to take electives as part of their graduation requirements, meaning not everyone would participate in the valuable opportunity offered by their schools. It would mostly attract students who are interested in current events and probably already possess savvy analytical skills when it comes to political research – this is not the target demographic.
Conversely, offering Poli Sci 101 as a four year course to be taken for the duration of a high schoolers academic career is impractical and more burdensome than helpful. Lau explains that doing so would be a challenge for the faculty who would “probably not be in favor of restructuring graduation requirements.” Additionally, finding faculty who would be willing to teach an entirely new set of classes would be equally challenging, as the burden would invariably fall on the History Department which already possessed abundantly other responsibilities. Politically engaged students such as Seccomandi already believe that the course is somewhat “unnecessary” making the four-year commitment rather lengthy and off-putting to some. This also fails to meet the original intentions of the class by discouraging students from naturally exploring issues in depth, as doing for four long years becomes burdensome and more of a chore. A one-year commitment sufficiently creates structure and accountability without conditioning students to associate politics outside of Poli Sci 101 with a string of major assessments and essays they’ve been forced to write for four years of their life.
The overall objective of Poli Sci 101 is to provide every high school student with basic foundational skills necessary to analyze contemporary world issues in depth. This need for formal education in this area has become increasingly necessary in our media-driven society where over 71% of teens ages 13-17 have a Facebook account (Lenhart). Unfortunately, social media has become plagued with fake news pieces and sensationalized arguments solely intended to polarize and divide our nation. Such pieces continue to propagate because individuals lack the ability to properly analyze an argument for yellow journalism and other journalistic ploys that aim to incite dissent and breed hatred. Educating students on how to navigate the tide of political falsehoods from an early age will certainly combat this growing crisis, one future voter at a time. If we are truly committed as a nation to teach students how to think expansively, we must teach students not only how to think in a classroom, but how to think in life.
Image Credits: https://brocku.ca/brock-news/2017/05/event-to-introduce-political-science-and-labour-studies-to-high-school-students/