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February 1, 2005

students and the First Amendment

I’ve spent the last day and a half in the magnificent 23nd floor offices of the First Amendment Center, which provide the most panoramic view of the National Mall. We have been discussing a new Knight Foundation report on students and the free press. As you might expect, American adolescents poorly understand—and undervalue—the free speech and free press clauses of the First Amendment. For example, just over half (51%) agree that newspapers should able to freely publish without government approval of each story. However, those students who have studied the Constitution and/or worked for school newspapers and other youth media are relatively likely to support freedom of the press.

This is an important study, especially for its details. (The executive summary—which describes adolescents’ general lack of knowledge and interest—will surprise no one.) However, some of the presenters, by decrying our clueless kids, simply reminded me why I prefer a different approach.

First of all, many of us have learned that education should be “asset-based.” Given any topic (knowledge of history or science, sexual behavior, concern for the environment, religious piety, voting, grammar) you can always show that average kids have too little knowledge and interest. After discovering such “deficits,” adults typically call for campaigns to raise students’ consciousness or change their behavior. These campaigns typically fail. But one can start in a different place, by recognizing that students are capable of tremendously creative and innovative and excellent work. Then the question becomes: How can we support and encourage such work? Incidentally, Knight has supported some of the best student journalism and student expression work in America, through the First Amendment Schools initiative, J-Ideas, and other initiatives.

Second, we should consider a genuine dialogue with students who have opted not to use traditional news media. I spend more than an hour of every day reading several newspapers in hard copy and online. Obviously, I think that at least some reporting is worthy of my time and attention. At the same time, I see very serious flaws in mainstream news media. The most prominent media (local television news, brief news updates on the radio, and chain newspapers) are particularly bad. So could it be that students are at least partly right to shun the press? Note that they could be partly right and partly wrong, in which case a dialogue might be productive for both sides.

Third, students must have a sense of political efficacy in order to take the news seriously. During the Freedom Forum event, ABC News’ Carole Simpson said that she is traveling around the country trying to persuade kids to pay attention to issues like Iraq and outsourcing. She tells them that these issues will affect them. But there is a missing piece in her argument. Why should you follow the news, even if it threatens to affect you personally, unless you feel you can do something about current events? For example, imagine that Iraq is going to turn into a quagmire, and today’s 16-year-olds will be drafted to fight over there. Even if this were true (which I doubt), a teenager still shouldn’t bother informing himself unless he thinks that he can help to solve the problem. Political powerlessness, or the feeling thereof, inevitably discourages people from consuming news.

February 1, 2005 1:14 PM | category: advocating civic education | Comments


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