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Sunday, July 3, 2022

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Burst Their Bubble

We live in wondrous days. Multitudes of information are available to us anytime, anywhere, at the push of a button.  This is truly amazing. Yet, as always, this world-changing development has brought with it some unintended consequences.

The growth and spread of technology has given us the ability to find exactly what we’re looking for without having to exert extraordinary effort. We don’t have to settle for anything less than (or different from) what we want. I contend that this is not wholly good, for it also means that we (and our children) can retreat into our own taste communities and live there without ever having to leave!

Even though the entire universe of content is available to us, we can choose to listen only to our music and never be exposed to anything else. We can spend all of our screen time with what is familiar or what we truly want to watch or hear. If we are not careful, this can close us off to new experiences, especially experiences that may challenge us.

Growing up with technology

Too much choice can be overwhelming. Retreat into the bubble of the familiar or comfortable has the most negative implications for the young. Unadventurous repetition or focus on only one style, one genre or one ideology can be very limiting and, ultimately, distorting. It can cause our children to be closed off from so many things that we know will be good for them.

In days gone by, when there were far fewer channels to watch and far fewer radio stations to serve niche markets, we had no choice but to be exposed to a broader array of genres or and styles. Today, you can watch hours and hours of home or “reality” shows on TV and never see the news or a variety show. In days gone by, you often had to see a number of acts you didn’t want to before you saw what you were tuning in to see. Sometimes, you may have discovered that you enjoyed them.

In the realm of politics, editors screened information and “the establishment” set the appropriate boundaries of opinion. Today, all bets are off in both entertainment and politics.  (In many ways, politics has become entertainment.) There is much more consumer freedom and many more extremes are accessible to all. Today, if you want to listen to a particular type of music, you can find it, and you can find enough of it so that you never have to venture outside of that system. Similarly, if you want to hear only right- or left-wing political opinion, you can find plenty of outlets that will feed you just that. You never have to listen to another opinion or another perspective. The longer you live there, the more your idea system becomes closed, and the less it will admit dissent, disagreement or challenge.

This lack of breadth does not serve our children well. If we retreat into our bubbles, if we allow no perspective that questions the discourse inside the bubble, facts that live outside the bubble do not matter, and we become more susceptible to misinformation and lies. The solution set to this problem involves openness, curiosity and the development of media literacy skills and a critical eye.

I believe we would be wise to focus on exposing our children to a broad array of opinions and arguments. We need to engage with them about how and why we agree or disagree with those perspectives. This will help to build in them structures of judgment and understanding. This will teach them to become discriminating consumers of information of all kinds. This will help them become engaged citizens. This was precisely the point made by Jefferson when he declared that education was the key to having a free, democratic society. To be effective citizens and voters, he knew that we must know how to assess and weigh the information that is presented to us. Without those skills, we are in danger.

Thus, the world of school should have at its core the respectful exchange of ideas and perspectives. It should challenge students to question assumptions. It should reward the journey of inquiry.

Piercing the bubble of our comfort zones as I suggest is an antidote to the apathy, the disengagement from our government and citizenship that are all too common today, especially in the young.  It will keep us safe from demagoguery and deception.  During this election season, teaching our soon-to-be voters how to listen to and learn from those with whom we disagree as well as from those with whom we agree is great preparation for citizenship.  It empowers them to ask the best questions and form their own opinions.  It is the best insurance for our future.

Mark Heller is head of school at Academy at the Lakes, a PK3 – 12th grade independent school in the north Tampa area. For more information about the school, visit academyatthelakes.org.

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