Public Media & Public Education:
Teaching for Democracy in the Age of A.I.
In September, I attended the annual NETA conference – focusing on Education – and Public Media Awards in Grand Rapids, Michigan. In part, the event was a celebration. Public media plays an important role in the United States and the good work they are doing deserves a chance to be celebrated. I am no exception: I grew up with Mr. Rogers and, later, Eyes on the Prize. But there was also a bigger conversation happening. With rapid advances in technology and a changing media landscape, people are wondering about the role of public media in American society. Specifically, what role can public media play in education in a world that is changing so rapidly and radically?
Our Changing World: Technology & Artificial Intelligence
The conference had already started when I arrived. People were heading into breakout groups. I saw my friend Todd Hoskins. Todd is a Wisdom Projects board member and key contributor to the conference and to NETA in general. He’s also a friend and someone I trust, so, having missed much of the explanation about what was happening, I followed him into a breakout group on the role of artificial intelligence in education. It’s been in the news a lot lately, especially with the proliferation of ChatGPT as it’s been used to write papers. Most participants in the broader dialogue seem to either be cheerleaders for the technology or luddites. I confess that I fall closer to the luddite camp, which placed me in the minority in the room.
What I found interesting about the conversation that occurred in the breakout was that it largely focused on how we can produce more skillful use of the emerging technology rather than on fostering wise use. In other words, there was a great deal of talk about overcoming one’s fear of the technology in order to familiarize students so that they will be prepared for jobs – outcomes – rather than any discussion about how helpful it is in the learning process. Outcomes rather than process is perhaps fundamental to the modern, industrial approach to education.
I find it odd that those who would be most aware of just how rapidly things are changing – the technophiles, the cheerleaders – would want to base an education system on jobs that are unlikely to exist when our children are actually in the job market.
I’d have liked to begin the conversation with a broader dialogue about technology and education. Speaking to the luddites, we might point out that not all technology is scary. Eyeglasses are technology; pencils are technology; computers are technology. Even A.I. – this was pointed out to me several times during the breakout session – is much more than ChatGPT and has uses that would be far less controversial. But all technology has a cost when introduced to the learning process. It’s like steroids: it can make things easier for us, making our own, internal capacities weaker. But often – as in the case with a pencil, or even a computer – we determine that the cost is worth it.
But it’s important to actually have the conversation, to not assume that it’s always worth the cost. This is what the cheerleaders miss. As technological advances increase exponentially, we have to be careful not to fetishize them. Our ability to google things ought not to replace genuine research or reading; ChatGPT ought not replace writing. For learning isn’t just about getting an outcome. It’s about entering into a shared process. It occurs in relationship, in that magical space in between. So we must always ask: Is this technology enhancing relationships in the learning community or hindering them?
Public Media, Public Education, & Democracy
Public media is a great example of a technology that most of us wouldn’t find too objectionable or scary. Largely, it’s a way of disseminating information via television and radio (and, increasingly, the internet). Public media’s role in education comes at the intersection of democracy and technology. It isn’t just about what’s profitable; it’s about what’s useful for a democratic society. The idea is that democracy is more than just what’s happening in government; in order to have the people participate in the process of governance, we require an educated populace. Public media and public education are therefore essential.
Our society has seen the proliferation of news sources like Fox News, along with social media, reinforcing people’s prejudices rather than seeking to inform. At the same time, public education is becoming increasingly privatized, abandoning its traditional role of teaching people to participate in a democracy in favor of job skills. This can be found even on the US Department of Education’s website, which talks about “competing in the global economy” rather than participating in a democracy.
But the question is how one actually teaches democracy (or anything, for that matter). Is it really merely about getting people information or is there something more?
Again, we must return to what education is, and is not. If it were merely about disseminating information, we’d have the most highly educated population in history. We’d have a thriving democracy; we’d be effectively addressing issues like climate change. But education is primarily about relationship and about the story that’s being told with the information. In other words, it’s what happens when information comes alive in-between people, and a new story arises in the relationship.
Let’s take the example of democracy. Sure, it’s good to learn about democracy. But we also learn democracy by creating democratic spaces in the classroom. For democracy is fundamentally about relationships in society. Who has power? Who has a voice? Why? A technology like a pencil, or a computer, or even ChatGPT could be used in the learning process, but it won’t teach people how to be citizens. That happens when we ask questions, when we feel through our struggles and share in the struggles of others, when we bring our full, embodied selves to the conversation.
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For the 2020/21 school year – the depths of the pandemic lockdown – we were all forced to make difficult decisions about how to educate our children. We decided to homeschool our youngest children, who were in kindergarten and first grade. We just didn’t feel that remote learning would be good for them or that in-person would be safe.
In many ways, although there were plenty of challenges, this was a wonderful experience for them, and for us. We read and wrote books; traced the story of the universe on giant ropes and drew maps of the world; made art and food; learned meditation, mindfulness and martial arts. Their relationship with each other, and us, was deepened.
My oldest daughter remained in school, in a remote learning program. It’s a good school, with smart and caring teachers and a rigorous curriculum. They worked hard for the kids. But it just didn’t work. Rather than take the opportunity to reimagine education, the teachers were forced to double-down on a process. Zoom meetings replaced classes. My daughter sat in front of screen after screen, day after day. She was depressed. For it wasn’t just about the information that the teacher was passing on. A deeper story was being told: the story that we are ultimately alone.
If nothing else, I’d like to make the argument that part of the purpose of education ought to be to have more joyful children. And if we can bring forth deeper and more meaningful relationships, create learning communities in which people care for one another, we’ll all learn. And we must not fall in love with our ability to spread information. We are good at that, yes. But the story that the information tells is essential. Whatever technologies we employ, we must not assume that the classroom is a neutral space – it carries meaning; it tells a story. This story can tell us we are alone – the story of capitalist consumption – or that we are in this together – the story of justice and joy. If we are to educate our young people to participate meaningfully in a democracy, we must not neglect the most fundamental aspect of educating: relationship.
Theodore Richards is a writer, philosopher, and educator. He is the founder of The Chicago Wisdom Project and the author of eight books and has received numerous literary awards, including three Independent Publisher Awards and two Nautilus Book Awards. He lives on the south side of Chicago with his wife and three daughters. You can find out more about him and his work at www.theodorerichards.com.