MacArthur President Robert Gallucci Remarks at the Georgetown University Law Center: "Educating for Democracy in a Digital Age"
March 29, 2011 | Speech | Digital Media & Learning

Remarks as prepared for delivery.

Morning Welcome

The MacArthur Foundation has always tried to engage with new issues and emerging social trends.

Some years ago, we realized that digital technology would drive social changes as profound as those brought by the printing press. We needed to understand them, and make a contribution.

After study and consultation, we decided that young people should be our focus.

We commissioned the first large-scale studies of how they were using the new digital technologies and how that affected the ways they learned and interacted. We also considered what these changes meant for our institutions of learning – schools, libraries, and museums.

Our early findings suggest that new media can be powerful platforms for self-directed learning, for building communities of interest, and for creating more responsive and effective public institutions.

We also think that digital media carries exciting possibilities for democratic participation. It turned out that one of America's most powerful advocates for civic engagement shares that view – Justice Sandra Day O'Connor.

Justice O'Connor has had a remarkable career of public service. Few people have served in all three branches of government. Fewer still have also served at the local, state, and national level as Justice O'Connor has. As a result, she has a deep understanding of America's system of government and a conviction that citizens in a democracy must be informed and contribute to their society.

Opening new possibilities for women in throughout her career, Justice O'Connor was successively Assistant Attorney of the state of Arizona, a state senator in the Arizona legislature – where she became the first woman majority leader – , and a judge both in Maricopa County Superior Court and on the Arizona Court of Appeals.

In 1981, President Reagan nominated Justice O'Connor to the U.S. Supreme Court. She served until her retirement in 2006. As the first woman on the Court, Justice O'Connor was initially the focus of national attention simply because of her gender. By the end of her term, it was the quality of her legal decisions that commanded attention and respect.

After leaving the Court, Justice O'Connor has remained active both as an appeals judge and in the public sphere. She has dedicated herself to revitalizing civic education in America, a cause which she has called "the most important of her career."

Justice O'Connor has looked for innovative ways to bring civics alive for young people, especially through digital media. One of her initiatives has been an interactive website, iCivics, designed to help middle and high school students learn about our system of government, discuss current issues, and take part in civic life. MacArthur, I am pleased to say, has been able to support a part of this project.

It is a great pleasure for me to welcome Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, to thank her for her commitment to civic engagement, and to invite her to share her insights about "Educating for Democracy in a Digital Age."

Mid-day Talk

We are in the middle of a deep social transformation. Digital technology and social media have changed how people – especially young people – interact.

People who have never met can now share ideas, build friendships, create groups and organizations.

This offers opportunities for dialogue between citizens, and for civic engagement, unparalleled in history.

We see it the Middle East where millions of ordinary citizens, mobilized by social media, have been changing the world.

We do not yet know what these movements will accomplish. But we can feel the shared longing to be represented and participate in the political process.

In our country too, networked participation has reshaped the public sphere. The Obama campaign brought together activists and supporters across the nation, attracting youth in unprecedented numbers. The Tea Party reached people not politically engaged before. It became a national movement without obvious leaders, or centralized funds, or even an agreed platform of ideas.

So we are in a new environment. What can we tell about it so far? Not enough, is the easy answer. There seem to be clear positives: organizations are cheaper and simpler to put together, less hierarchical, more responsive to emerging events. It is easier to spread new ideas. We have more information, increasingly accessible.

But there is a downside too. What do we do with all that information? Is it even reliable? Does it get in the way of genuine comprehension or supplant deep thinking?

The electronic news cycle pushes decision making to be more reactive and less deliberative.

We are losing newspapers, and with them the "gatekeeper"journalists who checked facts and sources. More people get news from blogs, some highly partisan. Selective web communities form, in which prejudices are confirmed and hardened.

Anonymous comments online are full of invective, exacerbating our polarized political discourse.

This is not healthy for a democratic system that demands dialogue and compromise to function.

In all of this, young people are most affected. They are immersed in the digital environment, most likely to get news online, create web content, and be linked into social networks.

What does this mean for education, civic participation, and democracy?

First, I believe the old fashioned competencies are more needed than ever. Good citizens need sound judgment – which is based on understanding. 

Informed and critical thinking, the ability to read and analyze, the capacity to express opinion and engage in debate are crucial.

Can we get there in the digital age?

Some early findings from MacArthur's initiative in digital media and learning make me hopeful that we can.  

Digital games, online worlds, and web-based interest groups captivate young people. They also lead to self-directed, interest-driven learning.

When kids are passionate about something, they engage. They create content, and criticize and monitor one another's contributions. They learn to read and think critically, and to communicate more effectively. We think they may be taking new paths to traditional literacies.

At the Harold Washington Library in Chicago, you will find 250 teens engaging in this kind of creative play most afternoons after school. But we find that the same kids who are immersed in their digital worlds are also taking out more books. At the Quest to Learn school in New York, a curriculum based on games design and systems thinking is producing students with a thorough grasp of the conventional competencies, and the skills needed for a digital age.

They are also, perhaps, taking a new path to civic engagement. Social media settings are not anarchic or individualistic.

They can be self-regulating communities, where codes of behavior are debated and chosen more often than they are imposed. There are lessons about citizenship here.

Online communities and digital networks also grow and change beyond their original purposes. Groups can espouse causes or popularize ideas. Boycotts and "buycotts"help express allegiances and influence change. Sometimes, a movement develops. The Harry Potter Alliance, for example, is an interest group turned civic activists, with 100,000 members dedicated to community service.

And, as I said earlier, social media has become a way to build political movements and electoral campaigns. This is one measure of civic engagement. But our society needs more sustained commitment to less obviously exciting responsibilities – to local government, school boards, or policy committees.

This is where I see a dangerous disconnect. In many ways, our apparatus of government, our public institutions, perhaps even our political system are out of step with the changes in society. Businesses, from banks to fast food outlets, have adapted rapidly with online services and response to customer demand.

Government, well, not so much. It was encouraging that the Obama administration established the Open Government Initiative to improve efficiency and increase collaboration between government and the public. But the problems are large, deep, and intractable.

I believe we need a wholesale re-evaluation of how the people's business is done – from the ways we interact with ordinary bureaucracies like the IRS and the DMV, to our modes of local government, to the processes by which policy is debated, developed, and implemented.

This is where the most exciting possibilities lie. Will our education system rise to the challenge of forming citizens equipped for the information age? Can that new generation, formed in a digital environment, make our representative democracy work better and fulfill America's promise?

We should commit ourselves to building a new civic culture for democracy, using the tools technology has given us.

Connection to others must be wedded to concern for others, individual passions must also embrace the public good.

That is our challenge. I know you are as committed as I am to meeting it.

Introduction of Abby Taylor

It is now my please to introduce Abby Taylor, Executive Director of iCivics Inc.

iCivics is committed to reinvigorating civic education through online games and other interactive resources.

Abby holds a JD from Harvard Law and her MA in Public Policy and Women's Studies from George Washington University.

She has worked as a senior policy associate at a national child advocacy organization, and in designing and teaching curricula for elementary and middle schools. She joined iCivics after completing a fellowship with the Sandra Day O'Connor Project on the State of the Judiciary at Georgetown Law.

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