Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Where We Have Failed

As typical of the media, they tend to focus on the negative when it comes to our public schools. They are very quick to tell us that we are failing at something or another. So, as an educator I'm often thinking about failure. Who are we failing? How is this happening? At some point during the presidential campaign last year, it became very clear to me what we're doing wrong. Ironically, it revolves around the media.

Now, more than ever, we need as individuals and as a society to be able to analyze, or synthesize, or take apart and put together again, the daily content, messages, advertisements, and general informatioin that bombards us at a sickening rate. The statistics of how much information we are almost forced to acknowledge daily is astonishing. So, it's no wonder that people shut down and turn off and simply allow someone else to explain, analyze, and or evaluate all this information. This is scary.

While teaching English within the last decade, I had many interesting arguments with students about how the media impact our society. My students always tended to blame the media for our negative attributes. It's easier to take this stance; this removes the individual from the problem, releases him from blame. I always got pretty heated in these debates. It was difficult not to. Because, I knew, if students believed that our violence and our degraded morals and virtues as a society stemmed from aggressively violent video games and blatant sex on MTV and in the movies, they would never see their role in the bigger picture. They hated to hear that the media does what it does because we buy it. If we don't want it, the media doesn't produce it. It's a simple economic principle. If the demand is there, produce.

Now? I'm really not so sure that I can make that argument anymore. I'm beginning to think that our media may actually be controlling our society more than we'd like to think ... or not think. As I was drawn deeply into the presidential campaign over the course of the past year, I noticed that whatever spin the media decided to give to whatever story they decided to report, the 'news' was voraciously devoured by rabid viewers. And it was very clear that there was little thinking going on in regard to at least fifty percent of the population, and this huge group of people believed everything they read or heard. I had personal experience with this.

There were many students I spoke with last year who just simply had incorrect information about our presidential candidates or about the campaign itself. I would locate valid sources, and we'd read or listen together, and then I'd ask them to reevaluate their original statement based now on the facts. They didn't like doing this, but it worked to show them where they had stopped thinking on their own and where in their thinking they had allowed someone else to take over. I never let the cat out of the bag in regard to who I was planning to vote for; my focus was simply making sure that they got the correct information, in the correct context, and evaluated it on their own. This worked for our students, but I couldn't necessarily go through the same process with adults I ran across who were having the same problem with their thinking.

Which brings me back to the immediacy of the problem: If our public schools intend to churn out people who can think, who want to think, who can tackle jobs that haven't even been created yet, who can work productively in a globalized society, and who can keep America on top, then we'd better look long and hard at what we're not doing. We fail at teaching our students how to analyze what they see and hear around them. Worse yet, they can evaluate very little on their own. When our adults fail to think, and I think to some degree it's a choice that many of them make, then we can rightfully blame ourselves and our public school system for failing to do what, I think, is our primary job: teach our students to think for themselves, to think deeply, and to base their decisions on something other than how they feel.

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