Democrats Must Discuss Public Education to Address 2020 Challenges and Russian Interference

In an interview on Morning Joe after two nights of Democratic primary debates, Colorado Senator and Presidential candidate Michael Bennet pointed out that during those two nights not one question was asked of the twenty candidates regarding educational policy. Indeed, he continued, no question was asked of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton in the 2016 Presidential debates.

As a former superintendent of Colorado’s public school system, Bennet’s ears are sensitively trained to perk up for conversations about education, or to notice the absolute dearth of such conversation.

His observation is a keen one: education has simply fallen off of the political table of nationally important issues. Arguably, in the now famous exchange between Kamala Harris and Joe Biden regarding the busing of children to enforce integration in the public schools, an issue of education reared its head in the debate. The issue at hand, though, more quickly became a discussion about racial politics rather than educational policy—or, perhaps more accurately, the discussion became one about Biden’s character, political record, perspectives on race, and viability as a candidate. Harris’s strategic pounce did not springboard into a larger discussion about education in the United States.

Certainly, it is notable– and distressing–that issues of education, most narrowly defined, were not addressed, leaving such vital issues as the quality—and equality—of our K-12 public education systems, college access and affordability, and the student debt crisis, unapologetically ignored.
What this lacuna also reveals, perhaps even more significantly, is the extent to which those dominating the political sphere do not understand education, most broadly defined, as playing a key role in transforming our larger culture and in helping to address in meaningful ways all the pressing challenges we face, from climate change, to national security, to income inequality, and so forth.

It’s not hard to see, for example, that educational policy needs to be a key part of moving us forward in the effort to address climate change. People of all generations need to be equipped with a basic critical scientific literacy to accept the reality of climate change, its consequences, and the urgency of addressing it. This means education must take place outside the narrow confines of K-12 and even college educational systems and must be part of a broader cultural initiative and transformation.

Let’s take the issue of Russian interference in the 2016 Presidential election as an example of this point. Several candidates on the primary debate stage mentioned Russian election interference a chief threat to our national security.

None of the candidates discussed educational and cultural transformation as part of the solution in combating Russian interference.

And yet, as I’ve discussed elsewhere in the pages of PoliticusUsa, perhaps the most successful model on the globe for addressing Russian political interference has centered educational and cultural initiatives in the effort to counteract the proliferation of fake news and other propaganda efforts.

I’m talking about the example of Finland, a nation which, ironically enough, solicited American experts to help them design their educational initiative to defend their democracy against Russian intervention, and this initiative has now become a model for other nations seeking to similarly secure their political integrity.

Having declared its independence from Russia 101 years ago and sharing an 832-mile border with Russia, Finland has a long history of fending off Russian propaganda but has stepped up efforts in the digital age, especially after Russia annexed Crimea in 2014.

What has the effort been? One that emphasizes educating its citizens in critical thinking, which includes a widespread initiative to train not just students in schools but all residents, journalists, and politicians to recognize fake news and critically question false information purveyed to sow division.

Again, the educational initiative was not limited to schools. As social media attacks escalated in 2015, Finland’s President Sauli Niinisto, Eliza Mackintosh has reported for CNN, “called on every Finn to take responsibility for the fight against false information.” Chief communications officer for the prime minister’s office Jussi Toivanen, while echoing that “it’s everyone’s task to protect the Finnish democracy,” also asserts that “[t]he first line of defense is the kindergarten teacher.”

The point to be emphasized is that the initiative was not undertaken in the educational system, narrowly speaking. The effort was to educate the population as a whole, so classes are offered, for example, at adult education centers, where one can take a seminar on how to know if one has been trolled by a Russian army and learn how to detect manipulated videos, false profiles, and so forth.

According to Mackintosh, this initiative, which is “one layer of a multi-pronged, cross-sector approach the country is taking to prepare citizens of all ages for the complex digital landscape of today . . . appears to be working, and now other countries are looking to Finland as an example of how to win the war on misinformation.”

Finland is showing the U.S., indeed the world, what it looks like to combat Russian interference.

But that means talking about education in broad ways. Indeed, funding for public libraries and park districts, not to mention public education overall, has been slashed, never recovering from budget cuts made during the Great Recession. And yet these are key sites of public education for our residents.

The first step is actually recognizing the spheres of education and culture as sites of warfare, really, where we must work to defend democracy.

Putting America first might mean following Finland’s example and recognizing that devotion to public education and critical thinking can prove effective in the fight for democracy.