Digital education and Democracy

While doing some research I came upon the following quote from W.E.B. Du Bois,

In the long run the people will and must rule.  And our only opportunity is in helping to decide what kind of people these potential rulers shall be.  The failure of democracy in the United States and in the modern world is due primarily to the fact that the government has not succeeded in making the ruling people intelligent and efficient, so that democratic power is continually wielded by mass ignorance debauched by demagogues.

While I am aware that the success or failure of the United States democracy is in the eye of the beholder and different folks have different yardsticks to measure it by,  in regards to education, health care, citizens incarcerated, income distribution, job creation and so on, the American democracy is way behind other Western democracies. Now of course there are many steps between democracy and the outcome in each of these areas, health care for example, and I am not saying one causes the other.  I am saying however that we have not elected a government that has produced an outcome in each of these areas that is satisfactory. Nor it seems are we close to producing one.  These and other issues are little discussed by politicians and when they are  it is only to say how they feel about them rather than provide plans to accomplish them.  More and more potential voters are frustrated by a feeling that these issues are intractable or at least beyond them to understand or even affect.  They vote therefore based on feelings, ideologies, and a belief that the candidate understands them rather than rational assessments of the programs and agenda of each candidate. They have become so turned off by the status quo that they increasingly  vote for candidates who represent “change” with little regard for whether that particular change is well thought out or not. They vote for politicians who promise short term, simplistic and usually wrong solutions to complex problems. The electorate responds to negative advertising that tries to scare one into voting for one candidate out of fear of what the other might do.

Has the “mass ignorance” of the voters that Du Bois feared led to a democracy led by demagogues? If it has is this the result of the failure of public education or are there other factors?  If it has not why has the electorate become accepting of campaigns that have no substance but have become reliant on arousing some emotion or fear in the voters? Now that digital technologies have entered both the educational system and the political one, can they somehow contribute to a better informed electorate?

To start with Du Bois was the supreme rationalist.  He firmly believed that people made their decisions rationally and that if they made the wrong decisions it was because they had not received the right information. He devoted his life to providing the correct information or interpretations of things and was continually disappointed when far fewer people than ought to, recognized his information or interpretation as fact and acted accordingly.  He tried for almost eighty years before giving up in disgust and going off to die in Ghana. At the end he realized that what he called the “propaganda” of capitalist society prevented the society and world he dreamed of from ever coming into being. This belief in rationalism has made Du Bois a hero for academics in African American studies  and I freely admit a personal hero of mine. We need to believe that the work we do teaching and writing about African American life has some value, meaning and purpose. If it gives potential voters the information, critical thinking skills and ways of thinking about the world that makes them  an informed electorate we are pleased.  If digital technologies can help with the teaching and writing process and Du Bois’s project then we should embrace them.

We must at least consider however that Du Bois is wrong.  In this scenario potential voters do not base their voting on rational considerations and no amount of information or critical analysis is going to sway them one way or another. I would argue that this basis for voting is both a learned behavior and a result of feeling a loss of control over events and circumstances. If so might we use education and digital tools for education to combat this feeling and behavior. We should expand our efforts to become public scholars who teach not only the people in our classrooms but others in our communities as well.

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