Fanning the Flames: The Freedom Project Blog


Schools and the 3 C's: College, Career, and Citizens

By Shawn Healy
Our nation’s schools are failing in their obligation to prepare America’s next generation for informed engagement in our representative democracy. According to the 2010 National Assessment of Educational (NAEP) in Civics, released recently by the U.S. Department of Education, less than a quarter of students of all grade levels performed at or above proficiency level in the subject. Moreover, fewer than five percent of graduating seniors leave high school with the ability to list two privileges of U.S. citizens, explain the impact of television on the political process, or summarize the views of Roosevelt and Reagan on the role of government.

Given these appallingly lackluster results, it should come as no surprise that our nation’s political discourse is callous and shallow, voter apathy outside of presidential elections is the prevailing norm, and public corruption permeates all levels of government. In an era of standardized testing that has served to narrow the curriculum and crowd out the social studies, our schools are tasked with ensuring that our students are career and college-ready. These obsessions have undermined schools’ original civic mission, for all graduating seniors must also emerge with the knowledge, skills, and dispositions for lifelong exercise of their responsibilities as citizens.

Thankfully, Illinois has a cadre of schools who have acted as stalwarts to these troubling trends. Deemed Democracy Schools, nine Chicago area high schools have been accredited by the Illinois Civic Mission Coalition as exemplary providers of authentic experiences for their students in the rights, responsibilities, and tensions inherent in living in a representative democracy.

Seniors at Community High School in West Chicago’s American Government class participate in the “Legislative Semester,” an in-school simulation that recreates the structures and politics of the Illinois House of Representatives. Freshmen at Maine West High School in Des Plaines, meanwhile, take part in the SEEDS (Students Educating for Equity in a Diverse Society) program, which teaches students that they possess the power to affect societal change by asking them to pick an issue they care about, develop an action plan, and share their ideas at an open house.

These and other Illinois Democracy Schools are blazing the path to reverse our civic decay by proving that a commitment to their civic mission need not come at the expense of career and college-readiness, or standardized test scores for that matter. Indeed, best practices in civic education have been proven to foster skills and competencies transferable to the 21st Century workplace. In addition to basic reading and math skills, these include a basic knowledge of economic and political processes, media literacy, an ability to collaborate with a diverse group of people, positive attitudes about working hard and obeying the law, and creativity and innovation.

Picture political discourse that transcends partisan infighting, an informed electorate that holds public officials accountable for their actions in office, and an effective, efficient public sector that serves the interests of the people it serves, not the insiders working within. Our nation’s schools stand as the linchpin for civic redemption, and these appallingly low test scores should serve as a clarion call for the renewal of their civic mission. Let’s do our part in Illinois and commit to making every school in the state a Democracy School.


The Dumbest Generation

By Shawn Healy
It is common for older Americans to marvel at the technological capacity of Millennials, equating digital wizardry with higher intelligence. On the other hand, experts have long lamented declining test scores in math, reading, and science, not to mention successive generations who are culturally and historically illiterate. In terms of media consumption, they are in the words of David Mindich, altogether "tuned out." Clearly, these dueling conceptions of younger Americans compete with one another, and Emory University English professor Mark Bauerlein grapples with this tension in his 2008 book The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future (Penguin, 236pp).

Bauerlein paints a portrait of a generation digitally connected to one's peers but isolated from both their elders and even the recent past. They are obsessed with constant affirmation from classmates who parted ways only hours ago via text messages and Facebook friends, yet couldn't be bothered by a newspaper, a book of any stripe (other than Harry Potter), or even art and classic music.

The author also suggests that we overestimate young people's mastery of the digital landscape, holding high "whiz kids" who are more outliers than the norm. We have rushed to integrate technology into all aspects of education, spending billions, but have yet to reap even incremental gains in knowledge. Students' use of the web for research purposes is likely to encompass a Google search, page clicks on the top three links, copying and pasting of text onto a Word document, adding a few transitional sentences, and handing into their teacher under their own name with no acknowledgment of the sources they consulted.

According to Bauerlein, uninhibited use of the web results in highly inefficient use of precious instructional time. Students are likely to dabble with the URL's supplied by their teacher, but probably check their email, make evening plans, and catch up on celebrity gossip along the way.

Research suggests that the Web fundamentally transforms the way we encounter information. True, its scattered paths may compliment brain synapses, but we only skim text, rarely read top to bottom, and avoid verbiage written above a fourth-grade level. True to form, PDF files equate to hitting the print function, if opened at all. Video games may immerse the mind in complex, real word decision making contexts, but fail to develop the communicative skills necessary for upward occupational mobility.

Rather than listing technological tools as the cause of informational ignorance among young people, Bauerlein considers them mere enablers. He departs from the education cultural critics of decades past, William Bennett, E.D. Hirsch, and Diane Ravich among them, in his non-ideological tenor, yet blame is assigned to the New Left. A generation of intellectuals who challenged traditional structures during the 1960's and 1970's, these scholars still read the great texts in order to critique them. In the process, however, Bauerlein claims that abstinence followed, and with it a dramatic decline in societal wisdom.

Respect for traditional authority fell alongside "great books," as "student-centered learning" replaced the traditional teacher as "sage on the stage." Educators are now trained as "guides on the side," and the author finds this transformation of the student-teacher relationship misguided, for young people, more than anything else, need structure and must sometimes be compelled to read Shakespeare or employ the Pythagorean Theorem.

Bauerlein's work is certainly a compelling read and his assemblage of data impressive. He admittedly does a better job of delineating the problem than detailing a solution, for a complete retreat to past practices is at best impossible, and probably not desirable anyway. His call for us to challenge young people to appreciate the past and develop a love of learning that will last a lifetime is worthy of acceptance, but from my own personal experience I would add that it is wrong to treat our students as empty vessels, for they bring diverse life experiences and broad collective knowledge into the classroom.

I would also suggest that it is wrong to dismiss the instructional potential of technology. The dearth of immediate gains is arguably attributable to the rush to integrate technology into schools for the sake of doing so rather than any appreciable ties to knowledge acquisition and skill development. Technology, like other learning tools, is a means to an end and not an end itself.

Bauerlein's work reminds the reader of Neil Postman's earlier work, Amusing Ourselves to Death. Whereas Postman's culprit was the TV set, Bauerlein's is the computer. The latter is by no means an inferior contribution to this critical field of work. The Dumbest Generation also echoes Cass Sunstein's, where the Web allows us to create our "Daily Me" and avoid any information outside of our own peer bubble. Like Sunstein, Bauerlein charts the correlation between cultural literacy and self-governance. Both are on life support, and Bauerlein begs us to change course before it is too late.


State of the News Media Circa 2010

By Shawn Healy
The contemporary economic model for journalism remains broken and the industry continues its desperate search for answers according to a report released by the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism this week. Titled "State of the News Media 2010," the annual study documents advertising revenue declines across media platforms. Only cable news dodged the double-whammy of the Great Recession and an antiquated business model.

Newspapers continue to headline the hardest hit, and the web has failed to emerge as the panacea. A full 90% of newspaper revenues remain tied to their print versions, and online advertising actually fell. The study suggests that only 21% of online readers actually click on adjacent ads, yet 62% of news consumers access the Internet for at least a portion of their news. Online newspaper readership grew by 14% in 2009.

The report references Rick Edmonds of the Poynter Institute, who estimates that newspapers have lost $1.6 billion in reporting and editing capacity since 2000, down 30%. Even as the economy stabilizes and shows signs of recovery, he expects continued cuts in 2010.

Print circulation continues its free fall, down another 10.6% in 2009. Daily circulation has dropped 25.6% in the last decade. Only the Wall Street Journal advanced in the last year, passing USA Today as America's largest daily newspaper.

Contrary to popular wisdom, however, newspapers are not going extinct. Closures and printing cutbacks have mostly centered on two-newspaper towns, and newspaper stocks have stabilized.

New journalistic models have proliferated in this vacuum. Jan Schaffer of J-Lab estimates that $141 million of nonprofit money has poured into commercial, nonprofit, public, and university-led news ventures, yet this accounts for a mere 10% of what has been lost over the last decade.

News consumers navigate an increasingly fragmented media environment. A little more than a third (35%) identify a favorite news destination and a mere 19% would continue to visit a news site that constructed a "pay wall." Yet 80% of web news traffic targets a mere 7% of sites, 67% of them "old media" outlets. 13% offer news aggregation, and only 14% produce original online-only content through reporting, not mere commentary.

The news organizations themselves are increasingly becoming niche operations, with more focus and necessarily narrower ambition. News, in a sense, has become "unbundled," as we no longer rely upon a single source.

New media outlets offer significant promise, but still depend upon their older peers for original content. 80% of blogs link to "U.S. legacy media." "Pro-am" partnerships like those explored by the New York Times may illuminate the path ahead.

As mentioned earlier, the only growing segment of the media is cable news, and their fortunes are tied to a retreat toward partisanship and an elevation of edge and opinion in place of objective journalism.

Network news is not on life support, either. The report contends that erosion continues, yet the 22.3 million Americans who tune into network news broadcasts each evening eclipse the cable news audience times five. However, network newsrooms have not been spared from industrywide cuts.

Local news outlets are experiencing accelerating audience declines beyond that of their networks, as have the network's morning news programs, long a source of strength.

Magazines have been perhaps hardest hit. Their very place in the 24-hour news cycle remains in question. Newsweek's focus on opinion-centered journalism is indicative of an industry in search of a sustainable path forward.

In sum, the 2010 State of the News Media survey suggests a continuation of ongoing trends for coming year. Doomsday predictions of extinction are probably overblown, individual casualties aside, and promising alternatives lie in the wake. However, a fundamental disjuncture remains: information wants to be free, and journalists need to eat. The path forward in 2010 and beyond depends upon resolving this perplexing revenue disparity for the good of democracy.

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Managing Director

McCormick Freedom Project

Shawn is responsible for overseeing and managing the operations associated with the McCormick Freedom Project. Additionally, he serves as the in house content expert and voice of museum through public speaking and original scholarship. Before joining the Freedom Project, he taught American Government, Economics, American History, and Chicago History at Community High School in West Chicago, IL and Sheboygan North High School in Wisconsin.

Shawn is a doctoral candidate within the Political Science Department at the University of Illinois at Chicago where he received his MA in Political Science. He is a 2001 James Madison Fellow from the State of Wisconsin and holds a bachelor's degree in Political Science, History, and Secondary Education from the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

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About Fanning the Flames and the McCormick Freedom Project

Fanning the Flames is a blog of the McCormick Freedom Project, which was started in 2006 by museum managing director Shawn Healy. The blog highlights the news of the day, in hopes of engaging readers in dialogue about freedom issues. Any views or opinions expressed on this blog represent those of the writers alone and do not represent an official opinion of the McCormick Freedom Project.

Founded in 2005, the McCormick Freedom Project is part of the McCormick Foundation. The Freedom Project’s mission is to enable informed and engaged participation in our democracy by demonstrating the relevance of the First Amendment and the role it plays in the ongoing struggle to define and defend freedom. The museum offers programs and resources for teachers, students, and the general public.

First Amendment journalism initiative

The Freedom Project recently launched a new reporting initiative with professional journalists Tim McNulty and Jamie Loo. The goal is to expand and promote the benefits of lifelong civic engagement among citizens of all ages, through original reporting, commentary and news aggregation on First Amendment and freedom issues. Please visit the McCormick Freedom Project's news Web site, The Post-Exchange at