2021 Leg Session, Ari Armstrong, Media, Politics, Uncategorized

Armstrong: Let’s teach kids real media literacy

Media literacy in the schools—who could be against that? Certainly not me! I am a little skeptical that we need a new state law to achieve it, though. Aren’t public school teachers and administrators able to implement good media literacy programs on their own, without the “help” of the legislature? If they are, then a new law is superfluous; if they’re not, then we have much deeper problems that a new law will not fix.

Much of the bill in question, though, is about providing resources to schools pertaining to media literacy. Presumably more resources are better, and perhaps the state’s efforts will help busy teachers adopt good materials in this area. We can hope. Still, it’s worth critically evaluating the details of the bill and thinking more about what a good media literacy program looks like.

At issue is House Bill 21-1103, sponsored by Colorado Representative Lisa Cutter and other legislators. The bill has made it through the House and (last I checked) was scheduled for a Senate committee hearing on April 22.

Legislating media literacy

This year’s bill extends an effort of a couple years ago. As the Colorado Department of Education (DOE) explains, in 2019 the legislature created “an advisory committee within the [DOE] appointed by the Commissioner of Education. The committee was responsible for creating a report [on media literacy] for the education committees” of the legislature.

The new bill does two main things. It orders the DOE to “create and maintain an online resource bank of materials and resources pertaining to media literacy” based on the committee’s report and to offer “technical assistance” to schools on the subject. And it orders the state Board of Education to “adopt revisions to the reading, writing, and civics standards that identify the knowledge and skills that an elementary through secondary education student should acquire relating to media literacy.”

Hopefully this program (assuming it passes through the Senate) will on net improve students’ education.

Yet we have reason to worry that the program may be incomplete or biased. Because the program is a product of legislators and education bureaucrats, we should expect it to manipulate (or at least curate) the media it presents about media literacy partly to serve the interests of legislators and education bureaucrats.

Indeed, a study of how governments often manipulate media to further governmental ends, whether to “nudge” citizens to change their behavior or to propagandize for nationalistic campaigns (as examples), should be central to any good media literacy program. But somehow I doubt that Colorado’s “online resource bank” will prominently feature materials about how (say) public schools sometimes manipulate for political ends the educational media that students consume.

I agree with many of the views expressed by the bill. The bill declares that “Coloradans [should] possess the ability to understand context and think critically about the information they are presented.” The bill rails against the “widespread dissemination of misinformation,” and it recognizes that people need to be able to “identify and critically examine facts.”

The “safety clause” lie

Yet right away the politics of the bill are obvious. After all its concern with misinformation, it ends with a well-worn political lie. The bill invokes the infamous “safety clause” specifically intended to circumvent the state constitution’s language about citizen challenges to legislation.

The bill’s language claims that it “is necessary for the immediate preservation of the public peace, health, or safety.” Really? While drawing on a 2019 report and initiating a bureaucratic process the bill is going to claim that the danger of misinformation is so “immediate” that the bill can’t stand more public scrutiny?

Reporter Kyle Clark, who was on the committee that produced the 2019 report, rightly refers to the “safety clause” as “this little trick used by state legislators, a way to change our laws quickly and to keep citizens from blocking new laws that they don’t like.”

In other words, the legislature is going to make sure kids can critically evaluate facts, and if legislators have to lie and distort facts to make that happen, well, I guess some lies are necessary for “the functioning of our democracy” (another phrase from the bill).

Perhaps the Senate will amend out the “safety clause” here, yet it is striking that the same legislators who rarely think twice about routinely lying to the public in this way now are so concerned about policing misinformation. That offers a good object lesson even if the lie in question isn’t too consequential.

Failing the media literacy test

The bill explicitly leaves the real work of developing a media literacy program to the DOE based on the committee’s 158-page report. That document reads pretty much like you’d expect a bureaucratic report to read: pretty good although tediously repetitive and laced with jargon. What matters far more than the report is the classroom-level instruction.

Parents might be especially interested in the “teacher resources” listed starting on page 82 of the pdf. The report lists outside resources on cyberbullying, the spread of disinformation, and more. So far I’ve only glanced at some of these resources, but I plan to explore them more fully with my son (who is homeschooling with my wife and me).

I do have a word of caution about one of the sources the report recommends. As much as I appreciate the Pew Research Center’s polling data, Pew commits a deep philosophic error in presuming that all moral claims are thereby not “factual” but instead are mere “opinion.” Pew also mislabels other sorts of factual statements.

I don’t have space here to explain the relevant issues in detail, but I’ll relate something that Michael Huemer, a philosopher at CU Boulder, writes in his new book: “American high school students are frequently taught a distinction between facts and opinions; unfortunately, they are often taught a confused account that presupposes controversial views, and incorrectly taught it as if it were a matter of fact.” Older precocious students (as well as adults) who want to more deeply understand the nature of objectivity and of knowledge should read Huemer’s book.

This brings me around to a broader point about media literacy: If you uncritically accept everything you read in a government report, you have failed the first test. We need to critically evaluate media on media literacy, regardless of its source, but certainly no less just because it gets government’s official stamp of approval.

If, as a parent or student, you uncritically trust your school (public or private) to provide robust and complete information on media literacy, you have failed the second test. Maybe your school will do a great job in this area, but how will you know unless you think carefully about the subject and do some outside investigation?

Along these lines, I recommend for students, parents, and teachers a set of essays by philosopher Ben Bayer on “developing a critical nose for news.” And read his essays critically!

The upshot is that this year’s legislative effort may do some good and is unlikely to cause significant problems. Even if the bill fails (which I doubt), the report itself is useful. We just need to remember that politicians and bureaucrats aren’t going to fundamentally solve the underlying problems at hand, and they often have their own agendas. We should (in the normal context) think carefully about news media as well as about media-on-media literacy. And that, by the way, is a fact.

Ari Armstrong writes regularly for Complete Colorado and is the author of books about Ayn Rand, Harry Potter, and classical liberalism.  He can be reached at ari at ariarmstrong dot com.

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