Tuesday, July 14, 2020

I grew up in a home to which the local newspaper was delivered every day. We may not have been the most sophisticated or politically active household in the state, but each morning around the breakfast table, and each Shabbat afternoon, members of my family could be found reading sections of the paper and engaging in moderately thoughtful conversation about the events of the day.

Coming of age in proximity to newspapers enabled me to become familiarized with names and terms that were dominating the national or international consciousness, even if I didn’t completely understand what they were all about. As an elementary-school student in the 1980s, for example, I remember seeing headlines introducing me to such personages as Geraldine Ferraro, Oliver North, Natan Sharansky, Christa McAuliffe and Baby Jessica—and even if I could not yet fully understand the significance of each, I could tell how important each was based upon the size of the type that the newspaper editors chose to employ each day. These people became major protagonists in my young cognitive development.

At that point in my life, I think that I could name every player in Major League Baseball and his usual spot in his team’s batting order, as I was reading box scores in the Sports section on a daily basis. And the Business section introduced me to the wonders of the stock market, enabling me to track my mythical portfolio and begin to understand the basics of economics and finance.

One of the great pities of the digital era is that most of our children are growing up without the ubiquitous newspapers strewn about the kitchen table and piled in their classrooms and libraries. And there is a distressing irony to this: In an age in which sources of “news” are more pervasive than ever, the ability to absorb an understanding of world events through casual exposure to the written word is severely compromised. Most news is accessed online, where it must compete for attention with infinite alternative attractions (some less savory than others), and where it is seldom prioritized and curated with the careful touch of a newspaper editor.

Today, I read most of my news on my phone. Taking out a device in the presence of my children at breakfast, however, does not generate nearly the same atmosphere as distributing sections of the printed newspaper, and it can undermine the type of culture that we are trying to cultivate in our home—so I usually refrain. As for my children themselves, who are now of an age at which I was glancing at the headlines and at least increasing my awareness of important events and characters, they do not have their own phones—and if they did, and we were all reading to ourselves around the breakfast table, how could I be certain that they were engaging with reputable news sources rather than one of those infinite distractions available to them through that medium? (Incidentally, even for those who do receive the newspaper, young, analytical minds can no longer be cultivated with baseball box scores and stock listings, as these have mostly been excised from printed editions—it is merely assumed that such news will be consumed online.) 

Enter the school. In this era of unlimited-news-is-no-news, the role of schools in promoting student awareness of and thoughtful engagement with current events is more critical than ever. The broader world expects that graduates of our institutions will be well versed in local, national, Israeli and international happenings, and—perhaps just as importantly—equipped to articulate carefully considered perspectives and viewpoints on these events. Such an outcome can be achieved only through purposeful programming on the part of the school.

To be sure, in our polarized era, school leaders are likely to see considerable risk in engaging current events as a curricular obligation. In the eyes of many, merely to discuss politics is to become politicized, and there is a fine line between teaching students how to think and teaching them what to think. As educators, however, to avoid equipping students with the knowledge and skill necessary to participate in thoughtful conversation about the state of the world is to shirk one of our most important responsibilities. And as Jewish educators in particular, we recognize that our tradition is built upon wise people offering contrasting perspectives on foundational issues—often without definitive resolution.

 Schools offer an array of rich settings that are appropriate for substantive engagement with current events. Social studies/history classes, town hall-style meetings and student panels can all promote fruitful conversation, and expository writing assignments can be utilized to nurture the crucial skill of developing an informed viewpoint and articulating it cogently.

In our high school, we have successfully experimented with the format of “non-debate” panels. We select four or five student panelists, each well-informed about a particular (often controversial) topic and representing a broad variety of viewpoints. These student speakers outline the subject and offer their own perspectives—supported with evidence, but specifically not in a manner that is designed to refute the arguments of their co-panelists. Instead, each is asked to organize her/his comments around the syntactically tortured but substantively intriguing framing of “How would you want somebody who disagrees with you to be able to articulate what you believe?” Members of the audience then have the opportunity to ask questions and engage in conversation—carefully facilitated, such that the purpose is always to expose the group to a wider, deeper set of perspectives, never to convince someone else that her/his view is incorrect. This distinction is subtle, but it has enabled us to run highly engaging, thought-provoking sessions without devolving into fruitless argument or defensiveness.

Among the many seismic shifts brought about by the hegemony of the internet is the relocation of news from credible, carefully edited, ever-present broadsheets—which we would always delight in seeing students read—to the same devices that offer video games, public social-media abasement, cat videos and other temptations that often understandably overshadow the allure of serious intellectual content. This change, both lamentable and exciting, empowers educators with a dual obligation: to teach their students to harness the potential of the internet carefully and safely, and to ensure—rather than simply assume—that they are aware of the major events and thought trends that are shaping our world and have the skill to participate actively in the discourse. 

By Michael A. Kay, PhD



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