Sturm: Social Media: Supercharged Truth or Consequences?
October 22, 2015
As a giant marketplace of ideas, Facebook is an astonishing barometer, for better or worse. Its force-multiplying "likes" and "shares" can direct masses toward aspirational "Arab Spring"-type movements or incite mobs with false grievances, such as the "Hands up, don't shoot" mythology that plagued Ferguson.
Whether people of goodwill are swept toward virtue or delusion and chaos depends on their willingness to Think Again about unexamined facts and "likes" — "to follow truth wherever it may lead," as Thomas Jefferson urged.
Martin Luther King inspired a national self-examination that touched Americans' conscience. Motivated by the self-evident truth that all men are created equal, Americans flocked to King's moral crusade — a movement Facebook would have turbocharged. Conversely, social-media-fueled lies about Jerusalem's Temple Mount have incited cascading barbarism against Jews and ancient holy sites.
Last fall, I noticed a New York friend's wildly liked Facebook post about massive student demonstrations in the Denver suburbs of Jefferson County. What injustice — real or perceived, I wondered — had sparked such passion and national attention?
It turns out the school board was considering a proposal to review the College Board's recently revised Advanced Placement U.S. history curriculum. It also had passed a merit-pay plan opposed by the education establishment.
Hell broke loose as teacher sickouts roused aggrieved teens to protest, citing "censorship" of their education. "JeffCo wants to remove slavery from the history curriculum," they cried, bemoaning the elimination of the civilly disobedient King.
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"We don't believe our education should be filtered by those who might not have the same values we do," one agitator clarified. Another candidly linked the protests to disgruntled teachers: "I think it's because they're all mainly upset because they're not getting enough raises. … That's what I was told by my history teacher."
Using the hashtag #standup4kids, social-media supporters likened the protesters to MLK and compared their school board "oppressors" to Nazi book-burners and communists.
For perspective, fast-forward to this summer, when dozens of distinguished academics published a scathing letter about the College Board, criticizing its power over local policymakers and its "notable biases" and "misleading account of American history" — as if rebutting the #standup4kids narrative. Acknowledging errors, the College Board issued a "clearer and more balanced" curriculum, satisfying most critics.
Today, despite this vindication, the 3-member Jefferson County board majority is the target of a November 3rd recall election, after decisively winning in 2013 on a platform to reform Colorado's second-largest and underachieving school district (serving 85,000 students) and to better govern its billion-dollar annual budget and 5,000 professionals.
Jefferson County's math and science scores lag behind national norms, flat since the 1970s despite an inflation-adjusted tripling of K-12 education spending. For years, fewer than 1 in 2 Jefferson County students have rated "college and career ready" on the all-important ACT test, 1 in 5 doesn't graduate in four years, and of graduates, 1 in 4 requires educational remediation.
Yet since the new board assumed office, the education establishment and #standup4kids allies have fiercely opposed the reformers' ideas to bolster student achievement, especially pay-for-performance and per-pupil funding equalization for charter schools.
At the start of the board's tenure, Colorado Education Association President Kerrie Dallman labeled it "hostile," promising to "make the educator voice strong and loud." Consequently, board meetings — streamed live — are like the Hatfields and McCoys, filled with conflict, acrimony and audience catcalls.
Nevertheless, the board has passed reforms to encourage innovation and school choice, devolve decision-making authority and accountability to principals and teachers, and boost compensation 7.5 percent. Recognizing that while change is difficult, not changing can be fatal, board reformers are buoyed by already-improved student achievement and graduation rates.
The Denver Post editorial board has repeatedly lauded these accomplishments, noting that the critics' "ongoing beef with the board often was over policies that actually made sense and most parents might well support." Blasting "falsehoods" in the "alleged indictment," the Post argues recallers are "out of line" for "misusing a process that should be reserved mainly for malfeasance and corruption, or when the official can't do the job."
Garnering national attention again, Jefferson County's recall election is ground zero in the battle to improve K-12 education. Whether every student has a shot at realizing their unique talents and competing in our hypercompetitive globalized economy depends on modernizing the entrenched system stymieing them.
Most importantly, it requires leaders who accept the insight of King, one of America's most consequential change agents.
"Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable," King said, for "every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering and struggle."
The truth is that it's a struggle to reason someone out of a position they've unreasonably taken, whether white supremacists, knife-wielding terrorists, "hands up, don't shoot" myth-promoters or #standup4kids campaigners.
Think Again — before joining social-media crusades to express solidarity or outrage, recall social critic Aldous Huxley's truism: "Facts do not cease to exist because they are ignored."
Melanie Sturm lives in Aspen. She reminds readers to Think Again. You might change your mind. She welcomes comments at email@example.com.
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