CNN reported a couple days ago on the disturbing results found by a study of high school students thoughts on the First Amendment. Not only does the study indicate a high level of ignorance of what the First Amendment is but it also seems to indicate that many students actually want government censorship of news stories.

While this is really disturbing it is not all that surprising. I’m certainly not an expert on the education process or the U.S. public “education” system but I’ve long thought that it is really a system of indoctrination. True, I’m basing this belief largely on my personal experience of the system followed by years of reflection on that experience as well as informal study of the system. That said, I think that this study reflects the validity of the idea that the public school system, as well as the larger social reality, is more a process of containment and control. Public education, along with the corporate media, are the major components of a larger information process which functions to set the parameters of our thought and activity. Thus we are “free” within those parameters.

Much of the literature surrounding the study is centered on journalism and media literacy within the school system. The idea there is that by involving students in the production of school media they will develop a better understanding and respect for the importance of the First Amendment. I’d suggest that this really is the bare minimum of what should be happening. If a society is to be democratic, in any meaningful sense of the word, it must allow for and encourage active participation in the processes of policy making as well as information distribution. Such participation should not be limited to a specific profession because it is the responsibility of each citizen to actively engage in the process of governance. I think this is where we find a solid contradiction between reality and what we are told is reality.

We are told that we are free and that we have a government by the people. The reality is that citizens are encouraged to be passive consumers rather than active participants. Think about what you believe the role of citizen to be. How would you define that role and how did you arrive at that understanding of citizenship? What did you learn about the responsibilities of citizenship in the school system? What is your memory of the structure of the classroom and the dynamics of the education process? Specifically, what do we learn of authority and our relationship to it? In what ways do freedom and democracy exist in school classrooms? In what ways are students encouraged to engage in self management in the process?

The original amendment to the Constitution is the cornerstone of the way of life in the United States, promising citizens the freedoms of religion, speech, press and assembly.

Yet, when told of the exact text of the First Amendment, more than one in three high school students said it goes “too far” in the rights it guarantees. Only half of the students said newspapers should be allowed to publish freely without government approval of stories.

“These results are not only disturbing; they are dangerous,” said Hodding Carter III, president of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, which sponsored the $1 million study. “Ignorance about the basics of this free society is a danger to our nation’s future."

Three in four students said flag burning is illegal. It’s not. About half the students said the government can restrict any indecent material on the Internet. It can’t.

The survey, conducted by researchers at the University of Connecticut, is billed as the largest of its kind. More than 100,000 students, nearly 8,000 teachers and more than 500 administrators at 544 public and private high schools took part in early 2004.

The study suggests that students embrace First Amendment freedoms if they are taught about them and given a chance to practice them, but schools don’t make the matter a priority.

Students who take part in school media activities, such as student newspapers or TV production, are much more likely to support expression of unpopular views, for example.

More than one in five schools offer no student media opportunities; of the high schools that do not offer student newspapers, 40 percent have eliminated them in the last five years.

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