Last fall, Free the Facts hosted an event with Michael Rich, president and CEO of the RAND Corporation, to discuss “Truth Decay,” or the diminishing role of facts in American political discourse.
Rich discussed the pressing need to hold our elected officials accountable based on factual information, not just opinions. In order to do that, however, constituents must be able to sift through an ocean of news media and distinguish between content that is factual analysis and content that is not.
How can people learn to identify those differences?
According to a December report by RAND researchers, it can start with redesigning our current civic education curriculum. The report offers suggestions for restructuring American classrooms based on survey data from school principals and social studies teachers.
Researchers found that many of the teachers felt they lacked the appropriate resources to support their students’ civic education. And while most labeled the subject as important, a few even described it as an “absolutely essential priority.”
How did we get here?
Truth Decay isn’t the first challenge to prompt an overhaul of the American education system. When the Soviets launched the first artificial satellite into space in 1957, American lawmakers began to worry that the U.S. was losing its status as a global superpower. They immediately resolved to make the U.S. a leading scientific force in the world by increasing funding for STEM education, expanding fellowship and scholarship opportunities, and revamping the STEM curriculum in public schools.
And we’re at a similar crossroads today - only this time, the threats facing our country are “Truth Decay,” the erosion of civil discourse, and the decline of civic education. According to RAND, the only way to mitigate Truth Decay is to examine the current state of our civics and media literacy curricula and make significant investments in our education system.
So what are some ways we can combat Truth Decay in schools?
1. Support creativity in our civic education curricula
RAND researchers recommend that rather than relying on old-school textbook learning, educators should incorporate more hands-on lessons into their curricula.
That could take the form of mock trials or school-based elections that replicate United States electoral processes. Educators could also utilize virtual reality platforms to simulate historical events, giving students an interactive look into our democratic and legal institutions.
Teachers face pressure to cover a predetermined amount of content in the span of one school year, which can sometimes force them to de-prioritize civics in order to focus on subjects like math or English. To mitigate that, RAND researchers suggest merging civics with these other courses. Polling methods and margins of errors can be taught in math, the speeches of civil rights leaders and presidents can be studied in language arts, and more.
It’s important to note that this proposal would require increased resources and support for teachers so they feel empowered to teach the subject well.
2. Increase diversity in teacher hires
The RAND researchers found that more diversity among school faculty can improve student performance in civics, so long as those teachers are also met with the needed resources and support.
3. Address student partisanship in school
Our politics lack constructive dialogues these days. Many of us avoid discussing politics publicly in order to avoid conflict. But what if we helped students learn how to safely navigate difficult and controversial conversations from a young age?
RAND researchers suggest “embrac[ing] controversy [and] emphasiz[ing] social and emotional competencies” through social and emotional learning (SEL) and other initiatives like school counseling and conflict-resolution programs.
The idea is that by cultivating these emotional skills in safe environments, students can learn how to have healthy dialogues outside of school.
4. Increased policy support
Teachers cannot rehaul our nation’s civics education curricula on their own. They need substantial support from lawmakers - support that is tailored to address each community’s specific needs.
The researchers found that hands-on civic learning opportunities are less common in schools that serve low-income students and students of color. These schools require specific policies that address the discrepancy in their learning outcomes. Part of this policy support would include revamping the curriculum so that it provides an accurate representation of historical events such as slavery and colonization.
What’s on the horizon?
On a positive note, some lawmakers have already voiced their support for restructuring our civic education curriculum. Last year, Reps. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) and Tom Cole (R-Okla.) and Sens. Chris Coons (D-Del.) and John Cornyn (R-Tex.) introduced the ‘Educating for Democracy Act of 2020’ which called to invest $1 billion annually in civics and history programs in K-12 and higher education.
And with the ever-increasing polarization of our political discourse, a comprehensive reform of our civic education is exactly what we need. When we give students the tools to discern between facts and falsehoods at young ages, we fight against the phenomenon that is “Truth Decay.”