Current Events Day, in which Scott presents about international agreements, and Lou scrambles to get ready at the last minute.
Students discussing Current Events will always be a critical part of Civics education.
As Scott Joens recited his presentation, Tyra glanced at her other screen. Her class-monitoring software had told her that Lou was distracted… so what else was new. And the program had given her a suggestion: it displayed an interesting question for Scott's ongoing presentation, which was about international weapons-control. Perhaps Tyra could pose this question to Scott, to pull the discussion in a productive direction.
It was Current Events presentation day, and Scott earnestly read aloud from his notes, while his fellow class members struggled to stay interested. As students do, Scott had culled various quotes from pundits about the situation, and strung them together into an awkward pastiche.
"…So the Russian foreign minister wants access to other countries' data. But the U.N. is against it. Uh. That's it."
"Let's thank Scott, everyone," chirped Tyra and clapped softly to invite everyone else to do the same. "Scott, that was very nice. Let me ask a question, to you or to anyone in the class. Why do you think the U.N. is against it?"
Scott was ready. "Because it's national sovereignty. And because they—the UN—wants to control all the information themselves."
"Ok, good," said Tyra, and she pressed, "So, let's talk about national sovereignty. What is that, and why is weapons-tracking a national thing?"
During the prior decade, stricter weapons production tracking had been accomplished, to a point where illicit factories and workshops had (it was believed) been completely eradicated. It had also gotten prohibitively difficult to hide the location of even the smallest handguns. But, of course, there was still plenty to argue about when it came to managing the system.
The class had fourteen members today, six of them virtual. Maria had already presented about the proposed stadium project, Hasam about the primary debates, and Mei Ling about a spy scandal.
The discussion about weapons-control got going. As the class knocked around the concept of "sovereignty", names were added to the shared board, with terse summaries of the points that each were adding to the discussion. Lou seemed not to notice or care that his name was the only one not making an appearance.
"Shit, I've got five, maybe ten minutes at best," Lou thought to himself. There was a tinge of agitation, but he kept his efficient, cool demeanor. "If she calls my name, uh… I'll just ask what a foreign minister does."
Lou's presentation was going to be about the primary debates, too, and he wanted to quickly get up to or above the standard of Hasam's performance. He focused on the falsehood to which Congressman Green had recently confessed.
He trolled some aggregator sites that high-school students had built and maintained. No helpful links. He next went into a news article and skimmed through the vague statements. He finally typed "Green lie" and the search engine produced gold: an opinion piece that provided sordid details.
It didn't quite match with what he thought his thesis would be, but a comment in the article about the Elections Commission gave him an idea. He entered one more search phrase, and found an article that explained the purpose of the old Truth Act – again, not spot-on, but he skimmed through the paragraphs, and found a comment that seemed to validate part of his half-baked thesis, and resolved to mention this support during his presentation.
Tyra finally decided to up the ante. Next to Lou's name, she selected "Update Student's Activities". The monitor indicated that Lou was rapidly web-surfing. Again, no surprise. She clicked to inquire what topics he was searching. The software knew what Lou's presentation topic was, and stated baldly, "Probably adding to his presentation."
Tyra knew that accusing was too risky of an option, but still wondered whether she should privately signal to Lou that she wanted his contributions. But she decided to let it go—at least he was working on school work.
As for this particular Civics activity… seems pretty conventional, no? This will be hard to change – it is not easy to interest students in the remote affairs of politics or economics, and the news is a useful tool.
The news is how adults today hear about the issues. None of us has the time to study the issues all the time, and news is a reasonable attention-management strategy. It’s inherently interesting because you know others are looking at it. And news organizations provide—at least on their face—a degree of balance and context in their presentation. Even if it’s just “the other side says X.”
But it tends not to educate or address knowledge deficits. Whenever the news is not focused on a scandal or a car-bomb, its focus is on the ongoing partisan war, because that excites people and gets them to watch. Most of the energy goes into reverse-engineering the “spin” that was issued (by the politician in question), and the counter-spin reactions from rival politicians. By the time the reader/viewer has gotten through that, they don’t have more energy or time for the background or underlying context.
Let’s hope that, somehow, someday, this might be changed. Among other benefits, it would certainly make Current Events Day more productive!
We see that Lou is adept at skipping around news and information sites. The idea that education is shifting from memorization to lookup is controversial, and the controversy will be with us for a long time. No one denies that lookup skills are important, and that there are advantages to having the best, most up-to-date information at point of need. But does such activity provide us understanding, or just a shallow, just-barely-enough acquaintance?
In any event, current events can and always should be an important part of Civics education for young people.
But it should, and will, also be complemented by kickass learning sites.