Barth Keck

As if they didn’t have enough responsibilities, schools in Connecticut could soon be required to do even more.

“The state Senate on [May 11] passed a bill that will make financial-literacy education a graduation requirement for all Connecticut high schools,” reported CT News Junkie’s Hugh McQuaid. If the bill passes the House and is signed into law, it would require students to complete a half-credit course in personal financial management and financial literacy beginning with freshmen this September.

While it’s always a challenge for schools to take on new responsibilities, kids need financial-literacy skills. According to the Federal Reserve, “American household debt hit a record $16.9 trillion at the end of 2022, up $2.75 trillion since 2019.” What’s more, Americans owe $986 billion on credit cards, exceeding the previous high of $927 billion in 2019.

Clearly, financial literacy is an essential skill. Even so, it’s not the requirement I would put first on the list for the 2023-24 school year. Instead, I’d give that designation to media literacy. A quick inventory of recent news items makes the case:

  •  “The creator of advanced chatbot ChatGPT has called on US lawmakers to regulate artificial intelligence (AI). Sam Altman, the CEO of OpenAI, the company behind ChatGPT, testified before a U.S. Senate committee [on May 16] about the possibilities – and pitfalls – of the new technology.”
  •  “A false report of an explosion at the Pentagon, accompanied by an apparently AI-generated image, spread on Twitter [on May 22], sparking a brief dip in the stock market.”
  •  U.S. Senator Richard Blumenthal was late to his press conference [on May 22] and used a recorded message of his own voice to explain how his car had broken down and he needed money to fix it. “In reality, Blumenthal was late because he’d been stuck in traffic. An aide produced the recording using artificial intelligence software. He said it took her less than three minutes to create the plea for cash in his voice.”
  •  “U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy issu[ed] a warning [on May 23] that social media poses a threat to kids’ mental health, escalating calls for new safeguards aimed at minors.”
  •  A National Terrorism Advisory System bulletin [on May 24] reported an alarming rise in misinformation, noting, “In the coming months, DHS expects the threat environment to remain heightened and that individuals may be motivated to violence by perceptions of the 2024 general election cycle.”

We live in a world, quite simply, surrounded by artificial intelligence, misinformation, and social-media malfeasance – easily the most content-saturated environment of my lifetime. A basic understanding of media is truly the only way to make sense of it all so that individual citizens – not the proprietors of media – are in control.

It’s a plea I’ve made numerous times before: “Make media literacy a high school graduation requirement.” I can’t say it enough. And now, it’s reaching a crisis stage, as people can’t even agree on “truth.”

“As generative AI becomes more accessible, it won’t just become easier for people to create fabricated videos, it will be easier for people to claim that anything they don’t like is fake,” according to the News Literacy Project. “The only thing scarier than an information environment where anything can be fake is one where people refuse to believe that anything is true.”

If nearly two-thirds of all Republicans still believe that “Biden did not legitimately win the 2020 election,” just imagine what “new truths” anybody with a laptop will be able to create using AI. No wonder the CEO of a major tech company is actually asking for his company to be regulated. Little surprise the Department of Homeland Security is urging citizens to be on the lookout for political misinformation 18 months ahead of the next presidential election.

We need to require media-literacy education right now for today’s students; otherwise, the problem will only grow. As it is, students lack even an elementary understanding of media, according to Dr. Belinha De Abreu, President of the International Council for Media Literacy and a professor at Sacred Heart University.

“When I teach my students, I ask them how much news they think we get in a given day, and they think that we get 24 hours of news because that’s how it’s advertised,” said Dr. De Abreu. “And we tend to have more like 23 hours of opinion makers, and we don’t have the ability to discern the difference between an opinion maker and a newsmaker.”

How likely is it that media literacy will become a required topic in Connecticut schools? A Department of Education committee three years ago made multiple recommendations for digital and media literacy, but not much has come of that report. Given the current focus on financial literacy – admittedly, an essential initiative – I’m not too optimistic. In fact, I honestly don’t think it’s hyperbole to suggest that if the current disregard for media literacy continues, the very future of America as we know it is in jeopardy.

Barth Keck is in his 32nd year as an English teacher and 18th year as an assistant football coach at Haddam-Killingworth High School where he teaches courses in journalism, media literacy, and AP English Language & Composition. Follow Barth on Twitter @keckb33 or email him here.

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