You are not an activist!

As the semester comes to a close, my students and I have been having increasingly deep discussions about what terms like activism, grassroots advocacy, and civics mean. This past week, focused specifically on the term epistemic closer (the idea that individuals may close ourselves off in our “ways of knowing”) to explain why some (many?) people are not able to be “open,” as Preskill and Brookfield (2008) describe in Learning as a Way of Leading. My students were quick to make practical linkages to the recent elections and to broader social, political, and economic concerns that the United States is facing. However, when we got to the question, “So, what can we do today to remedy our own epistemic closures?” it was interesting that my students’ only responses were about how we could connect with others in person; you could hear crickets chirp when I asked about our online activity.

That discussion reminded me about once again of the disconnect between our epistemology of citizenship and of the digital world. What a disconnect! Despite excellent research describing the civic skills youth learn by playing online games (e.g., Ito et al.’s (2009) work), youth I have spoken to suggest that the circles they find themselves in online rarely expose them to thoughtful conversations about the world and their connection to it. Even more difficult, though, is how to expand those networks, as my freshmen students pointed out this week.

Beyond the question of expanding students’ interactions online as well as developing those online citizenship skills, we need to also explore the ramifications of epistemic closer for building (or not building) students’ capacity to be effective citizens… digital or otherwise. To this end, one of my students sent this video as a way of explaining the problem.

Moving forward, we need to work with youth to develop an understanding of the best ways for them to break the epistemic closer bubble. They might:

  • Begin following political leaders on both sides of the aisle.
  • Add two different media outlets to their Twitter feed.
  • Link to local arts councils that explore culturally diverse programming
  • Link their RSS feeds to international news organizations.

These certainly aren’t cure-alls. However, without meeting people online with divergent views, participatory civics will only be “that injustice over there,” without any real connection. Before we ask students to “do,” they have to “know” and “feel.” Only then, can these three be iterative processes.