We are hurtling toward a reckoning.
Technology is the code that drives our economy, and democracy is the code that drives our public life. Right now, these two monumental forces are clashing in unexpected and disturbing ways: tweet storms and “fake news” and Russian bots inflaming American tribalism; viral clashes on Capitol Hill between old senators and young tech billionaires who can barely understand each other, let alone work together; tech jobs unfilled and democracy wobbling.
There’s no single solution for these problems, but there is a single source: not nearly enough people have mastered the two codes of technology and democracy; not nearly enough graduates are capable of bridging the divide between public life and the digital world. Microsoft President Brad Smith observed recently that there are three kinds of people — those who know technology, those who know democracy, and those who know little about either one. At the College Board, we want to help create a fourth category — people who know a lot about both. We believe young people need to do more than just cope with the future. They need to own it, and shape it.
That’s the goal of Two Codes, the College Board’s effort to foster a much larger, more diverse cohort of students ready to take their rightful places as informed, engaged citizens. We are working with partners who serve students in middle school, after school, over the summer and through their transition into college and beyond. With Two Codes, we’ll see more graduates ready to tackle the complex challenges we face whenever technology and democracy clash.
Way back at the turn of the Millennium, when I began researching the impact of technology on public life, there was widespread optimism. Most of us believed the internet would be a boon for democracy, opening new channels for civic participation and welcoming new voices to the public square. A Pew poll in 2001 found that people thought the internet would promote social interaction rather than “geeky isolation”; enhance spiritual life; and become enormously important to young people as they used cutting edge services like email and instant messaging, “to communicate with distant cousins, summer camp friends and the children next door.” It all sounded so exciting, so utopian, so wholesome!
Like a lot of people, I believed the internet would bring us closer, launch a new era of transparency and access to information, upend hoary hierarchies and make democracy more nimble, more vibrant, more alive. But while technology delivered on many of its promises, it also exacerbated the inherent tensions between transparency and privacy, anonymity and free speech, convenience and common decency.
The public’s feelings about technology and public life have darkened considerably during the past decade, as Americans across the political spectrum grow frightened by the accelerating pace of change and feel helpless to slow it, much less control it. We’ve seen a huge loss of confidence in major institutions, from government to big tech, that leaves people feeling disconnected from public life and from each other.
Educators must answer that challenge. Students with a firm grounding in both computer science and American democracy can begin to bridge the deep cultural divides that separate our move-fast-and-break-things technology sector and our more deliberative public institutions. It will also set them up to be successful in this economy, and in this democracy.
That’s why we redesigned our Advanced Placement U.S. Government and Politics course to immerse students in the founding documents, key Supreme Court decisions, and current contentious constitutional debates — the “code” of our democracy. Armed with that knowledge, they design a project to take on a problem in their community, applying their new knowledge to the real world.
Similarly, the Advanced Placement program formally launched a new computer science course in 2016: AP Computer Science Principles. With guidance from our partners at the National Science Foundation, this new class makes computer science seem less like a weird subculture and more like a fascinating and adaptable tool to solve problems. Instead of beginning with an abstract new language, students focus on an issue they want to tackle in the world, then use the discipline of CS to build a solution.
Both classes emphasize deep knowledge and on-the-ground application, giving students a sense of control in fields that too often feel distant and vaguely ominous. Pairing these classes exponentially enhances their power, because students can see how the skills of one discipline translate into another. In computer science, we encourage projects that address problems in our democracy. In AP U.S. Government and Politics, we push students to think about the technological changes upending democracy. We’re thinking about ways to make these connections even more explicit, potentially through joint projects in AP Capstone or a Two Codes certificate for students who complete both classes and a community project that integrates both disciplines.
That’s our contribution to this ambitious endeavor, and we need partners to help. There is a sophisticated community of leaders and non-profits that have been hard at work in this space for some time. We are already working with some terrific organizations in computer science, especially groups focused on getting more girls and students of color into the CS pipeline including CSforAll, Girls Who Code, Black Girls CODE, NCWIT, and Code.org. We’ve worked with the National Constitution Center to help embed their Interactive Constitution and a First Amendment course module in classrooms across the country and with Generation Citizen to create resources for educators to help their students design strong AP U.S. Government and Politics projects.
And that’s just the beginning. We must get tech companies and state government involved; we need CIOs and city managers to offer internships and guide student projects; we need to have this cause embraced by startups and senators; we need to embrace students in small towns many times left unseen. We need an orderly uprising: Our goal is to have two million students earn college credit in these courses by 2025.
As Tom Friedman noted in his column, these two codes unlock some of the biggest challenges and opportunities of the 21st century. If students can learn both, they’ll be ready for a world that’s changing much faster than any of us imagined even 20 years ago. Not everyone needs to become a computer programmer, and not everyone needs to be a Constitutional scholar. But everyone should know enough to grapple with the big questions of our time.
We can’t entrust our future to a few specialists who know how to code or the small caste that knows how to legislate and lobby. The operating system of the modern world must be open to all.