In earlier times, portraits of Washington and Lincoln could grace elementary school classrooms. The youngest elementary school children were graded on “citizenship.” The view prevailed that instruction in American history, civics, ideals, and great leaders, reinforced throughout grades K-12, would, save for incorrigibles, generally promote responsible citizens of good character. The inherent value of this instruction was unquestioned. There seemed to be an implicit recognition of Benjamin Franklin’s observation that “Only a virtuous people are capable of freedom. As nations become corrupt and vicious, they have more need of masters.”
Somehow over the last 45 years or so America lost its consensus and confidence in these fundamentals of education. In 2000, “No Child Left Behind” left even further behind American civics and history education. Metric outcomes in math and reading became the focus, with severe sanctions looming for schools if test scores in math and reading fell short of numerical progress and proficiency benchmarks. The value of fostering Franklin’s “virtuous people” defied metrics and was neglected.
The result is today’s widespread pig-headedness, incivility, poor character, unwillingness to compromise, and intellectual, cultural, and racial tribalism. We have forgotten how thin the line is between savagery and civilization. What Washington called the “experiment entrusted to the hands of the American People” represents the best of civilization. That civilization will founder without a deep understanding and appreciation of that experiment.
“Ethos” describes the character or basic values of a people. The American ethos springs from the ideals of the founders, the system of government they designed to further those ideals, and the history of the great racial and ethnic mosaic of outstanding American men and women, with all of their shortcomings, who established, protected, and maintained that system, and who have sacrificed for and sought to further those ideals. From what I see as a participant in the Fresno County Civic Learning Partnership and member of the Bullard High School Citizen Advisory Board for its nascent Law and Social Justice Pathway, there is growing recognition of the importance of civics and history education. But outcome metrics, bureaucratic inertia and racial and cultural tribalism hinder rejuvenation.
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Overemphasis on outcome metrics runs deep, even where that emphasis, so useful in other contexts, is misplaced. In business and philanthropy, decisions often turn on whether a proposed course can have a measurable outcome. An alternative with hard-to-measure inherent value loses out. Despite its inherent value, obtaining charitable funding for improving student education and teacher training in American history and civics unfortunately runs into this problem.
Overemphasis on measurable outcomes is also misplaced in other contexts. Some experts in artificial intelligence (AI) claim it is possible to automate ethical decision-making. They posited the moral dilemma of an autonomous car that goes out of control and asked 1.3 million people whether the car should be programmed to kill its own passengers or the pedestrians who are crossing the street. They summarized the overall choices, and applied the overall perspective of the group to a range of vehicular possibilities. They then purportedly automated ethical decision-making in artificially intelligent algorithms, taking the preferences into account. They claimed this provides a mechanism to help AI developers incorporate ethical considerations in their planning. Really? Unlike the ethical human driver, the algorithm cannot in an instant spot that the car can be steered up on a curb and avoid killing anyone.
Twitter’s AI newsfeed algorithm vastly propagates misinformation. Shortly after a recent attack in Toronto, a journalist quickly tweeted a purported eyewitness account wrongly identifying the attacker as “angry” and “middle eastern.” Shortly thereafter, the journalist sent out another tweet correctly stating that the attacker was “white.” Over the next 24 hours, the inaccurate tweet received some 1,600 retweets; the accurate tweet received around 150 retweets. Playing into existing biases, the incorrect tweet was quickly engaged. Once a threshold of retweets was reached Twitter’s newsfeed algorithm showed the tweet to more users, which prompted more engagement, more bias confirmation, and more misinformation. The accurate tweet received little retweeting and much less attention from the algorithm.
Misplaced reliance on metrics should not be allowed to promote our worst instincts or keep us from doing what is right.
Daniel O. Jamison is an attorney with the law firm of Dowling Aaron Inc. in Fresno. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org