Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Educating for Civic Awareness in the Millennial Generation

At the risk of sounding like the old grouch I truly am, I’d like to add a brief gloss to my post earlier today, reflecting on why we Americans are sitting ducks for disinformation campaigns, and suggesting some ways to counteract our tendency to be manipulated.

And this is where the grouch factor comes in: we Americans are often just plain stupid. Willfully stupid. It’s not that we lack access to information. It’s that we are too lazy to seek it out.

And those counting on us to be swayed by disinformation know they can count on our stupidity and moral-spiritual laziness. (Moral-spiritual laziness because not taking the trouble to inform ourselves is a moral issue; conscience is a form of consciousness, and consciousness “works” only when we inform our hearts, minds, and souls.)

I’ve noted before that the level of religious consciousness of many Americans is about at the grade-school mark. For many of us, informing ourselves about complex religious issues stops once we leave primary school. We remain stuck in pre-adolescence when it comes to thinking about and making decisions about religious issues and religious information.

The media—the mainstream media—pander to this stupidity. Recent studies show that when the media want “the” religious viewpoint on an issue, they will almost always select a spokesperson from the religious right. That segment of the American population is hardly the most educated and informed about religious matters. Allowing this segment to represent itself as “the” voice of American religious knowledge and awareness does not rectify the stupidity of the American voting public about issues in which religion and politics intersect. It reinforces that stupidity.

In a nation with the soul of a church where, whether we like it or not, religion and politics do intersect, the voting public’s stupidity about religious issues plays right into the hands of those who want to control the political process and public conversation. We desperately need to find ways around this roadblock of stupidity. The internet offers manifold possibilities for us to inform ourselves about religious issues and to engage in adult-level conversations about these issues—as long as we are critically aware that there is also a huge amount of plain garbage on the internet, when it comes to religious “information.”

I suppose I am thinking in this vein because I have had the mother of all summer colds lately, and as a way of distracting myself as I hack my lungs out, have been watching online a television series my brother has recommended to me. My work schedule in recent years rarely permitted me to follow any series with much intensity. Now that previous episodes are online in some cases, I use sick days to try to catch up.

The series is ABC’s “Lost.” "Lost" is a fine series, an engrossing one. I want to keep watching, if only to figure out what’s really going on with these folks stranded on a tropical island. I also enjoy the microcosm focus on a small self-contained community as a way of commenting on larger human communities, and the occasional exploration of topics like the reintroduction of torture in “humane” societies that had previously considered torture as an interrogation technique unthinkably savage.

As I watch, I notice, however, an irritating tendency in the series to misunderstand and misrepresent religious ideas. For instance, not long after the crash, as bodies of those who didn’t survive rot inside the shell of the plane, there’s an intense discussion of whether the plane and bodies should be burned.

This centers, of course, on questions about how various world religions choose to deal with human remains, and on taboos in some religions about cremation. The discussion is overstated, as though burning bodies of plane survivors—an extreme case in which extreme measures would almost always be morally permissible even in religious traditions that forbid cremation under normal circumstances—is well-nigh impossible to justify.

And yet, almost immediately after this discussion, the starving survivors go on a hunt for boar . . . . And no one raises any objections at all to supplementing their diet of fruit and other plant materials with pork, though one of the main characters is Islamic.

My point is that the issue seems not to be raised because the writers and producers of the show count on the majority of Americans not to know or think about the prohibition of pork in the Islamic diet. (There are no Jewish survivors that I’ve “met” up to the point in the series I’ve reached in my current watching of it.) And one suspects that the cremation discussion reflects some decision somewhere that at least some viewers would have qualms about cremation, based on their religious worldviews.

The series also uses the term “immaculate conception” as if it is synonymous with “virgin birth”—a not-uncommon slip in our religiously undereducated populace . . . .

We can do better. We need to do better. Gay marriage is only one of a number of hot-button issues in which the woeful lack of accurate scientific, legal, and religious education among the American public creates havoc politically. As the furor surrounding the decision of Terri Schiavo’s husband to withhold hydration long after she was brain-dead indicates, we are all too easily manipulated by those who want to use our ignorance of religious matters for ugly political ends.

These observations feed into a discussion of one of the articles I cited at the end of my previous posting—Courtney Martin’s “Fanning the Flames of Youth Civic Engagement.” Ms. Martin’s article argues persuasively that we are witnessing in the current election cycle a significant phenomenon: the intense involvement of younger voters, who had often previously been turned off by the political process.

She asks how we can assure that this civic engagement continues beyond the election itself. Her suggestions interest me as an educator.

In my view, no education is authentic if it does not seek intentionally to involve young people in civic engagement. What youth learn by doing, by involving themselves in a hands-on way in social action and political causes, crucially changes their outlook on life. Civic engagement educates youth in a way that classroom education cannot do.

Ms. Martin notes the tremendous importance of both universities and religious institutions in fostering civic engagement. She calls for specific and intentional efforts on the part of both groups to involve young people in the political process—and to assure that the political choices youth make are informed.

She also notes that religious groups need to help young people see that civic engagement is an expression of spirituality. As she observes, that awareness has been strongly planted in the minds of youth of the religious right, but has not been developed so strongly among those of a more progressive religious and political bent.

Recent studies of non-profit life in the U.S. show that the leaders of the non-profit movement are graying, and no one is being prepared to take their place. Baby boomers have dominated the non-profit life of the nation for a generation or more. With the graying of the boomer generation, there needs to be a careful transition to new leadership in non-profit movements.

Universities and churches—and, above all, universities sponsored by churches—have a vital role to play in the future of participatory democracy, by emphasizing education that fosters civic engagement and that encourages youth to make vocational choices based on a desire to serve. It will be interesting to see how the current election affects the choices of American institutions of higher learning—whether the excitement of young voters today translates into a renewed emphasis in our colleges and universities on civic engagement, and on the interplay of religion, spirituality, and politics in our public life.


colkoch said...

Bill, I thought this one was so good I posted part of it on my blog. It dovetailed perfectly with a Bill Moyer's thing I saw on Utube.

tuppenceabag said...

Thanks for defending the Beauty of American Democracy for the students of the world. Educators are central to my involvement in civic affairs. Fr. Andrew Greeley reminds us that the goal of education is to prepare the student for Beauty. The exposure and correction of disinformation is a cause of unending vigilance, despite some very ugly influences. At his Brand New Blog , Andysword.com , Greeley's most recent post exposes the latent racism that will likely reverse the near miracle of the Democratic Nomination epic. Thanks again.

William D. Lindsey said...

Colleen, I'm deeply grateful. Have fallen behind as I continue to try to get over this beastly summer cold.

Tuppenceabag, thank you for the note of appreciation. I agree with you that educators play a critical role in instilling civic awareness in young folks. So much information that is shared with the young is shared as if it is disparate: geography disconnected from art from political science.

Good education connects the dots and helps people see and think about the world in a holistic way.

And you're so right: this will only happen if we struggle constantly to expose and correct disinformation. I will check out Andysword. I'm glad to hear that Andrew Greeley is focusing critically on the racism running through this presidential campaign.