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Homeschooling Boom, Brain Games, and Rebooting 230: Five Things That Made Us Smarter This Week

From changes at school to (potential) changes to the internet, we learned a lot over the last seven days

We’re living in a world awash with content—from must-read articles and binge-worthy shows to epic tweetstorms and viral TikToks and all sorts of clickbait in between. The Elective is here to help cut through the noise. Each week, members of the Elective team share the books, articles, documentaries, podcasts, and experiences that not only made them smarter but also changed how they see the world around them and, often, how they see themselves.

Side view of son writing while studying by father over table at home

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The U.S. Census has found that the number of families homeschooling their children grew from 5% at the start of the pandemic to 11%. Among Black families, the growth has been sharper: from 3% to 16% over the same period.

Home is Where the School Is

During the last 15 months of pandemic-driven school disruptions, many families improvised to ensure their students continued learning. And one of the many, many outcomes of this experience is that what was at first viewed as a temporary reconsideration of school options when many public schools were closed for long stretches of time have become permanent changes. Kids have moved to private schools or charter academies. Families have decided to stick with learning pods. But nowhere is that shift more apparent than in the rise of homeschooling. “The Census Bureau found that, by October, 2020, the nationwide proportion of homeschoolers—parents who had withdrawn their children from public or private schools and taken full control of their education—had risen to more than eleven per cent, from five per cent at the start of the pandemic,” reports Casey Parks in The New Yorker. That growth has been especially pronounced for Black families, who have traditionally been underrepresented in the ranks of homeschoolers. “Around three per cent of Black students were homeschooled before the pandemic; by October, the number had risen to sixteen per cent.”

What Parks found in interviewing many Black parents is that the decision to homeschool is driven by a different set of considerations than the traditional population of homeschooling families. A movement that began as a largely religious and conservative push against the secular curriculum and desegregation in public schools is now expanding to embrace Black families who feel their children aren’t getting the kind of culturally informed education or respectful treatment they deserve. “The parents said that they felt as if they’d had no choice, with eighty percent citing pervasive racism and inequities. Even in the wealthy families, parents said that their kids were frequently punished or seen as troublemakers.” Disproportionate punishment for Black students and a lack of diversity in the teacher workforce (nearly 80% of public school teachers are White, even as the population they serve has grown far more diverse) have long been seen as obstacles to Black student success. The rise of a homeschooling movement among Black parents suggests that the slow pace of progress on those issues is having real consequences for trust in public schools. “For Black families like James’s, the ability to improvise a curriculum is a major reason to try homeschooling,” Parks writes. “‘We are not seeing ourselves in textbooks,’ she said. ‘I love traditional American history, but I like to take my kids to the Museum of African American History and Culture and say, O.K., here’s what was going on with Black people in 1800.’” We’ve still got a long way to go in creating schools that truly speak to their students. —Eric Johnson

Two men kicking in mid-air across row of computers

John Lamb/Getty Images

The only way a dispute over a law written in 1996 governing the internet should be settled: a "Matrix"-style battle in a room full of computers from the year Section 230 was adopted.

86 230?

"Everything You’ve Heard About Section 230 Is Wrong". That's the headline of Gilad Edelman's cover story for the June issue of Wired, a very long, very interesting deep dive into the "hallowed 26 words" "that created the internet." It's also the article I've desperately wanted since Section 230 was injected into our discourse about online life, the role of social media and digital platforms, and the implications of an unregulated internet for the First Amendment and democracy generally, to say nothing of our safety and sanity. The short version: Section 230 is a two-subsection piece of the Communications Decency Act of 1996 meant to immunize internet service providers from an avalanche of lawsuits arising from users lying about, defaming, or otherwise injuring other users. And it did so in that rare Washington bird: concision. Subsection (c)(1), which has taken on talisman-like qualities, states, "No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.” If a newspaper, radio station, or television network is seen as a publisher, and thus liable for pushing defamatory material, Section 230 treated ISPs as distributors. "You can’t sue Xerox for selling a copier to someone who sends you a blackmail letter," Edelman writes, and "you can’t sue Comcast for providing Wi-Fi to the hacker who drained your bank account."

I can feel your eyes wandering. And I get it—legislation and baroque arguments about its merits can be boring. However. Section 230 is critical to the internet we have, and its future will determine the internet we get down the line. One side wants to repeal Section 230 because they think Silicon Valley abuses the freedom granted it by the law. (No, banning President Trump from Twitter is not a First Amendment Violation; yes, it is a private business exercising the terms of service all users agree to when signing up.) The other side says "Heresy!" and warns that chucking Section 230 will “devastate every part of the open internet," as Senator Ron Wyden, a Section 230 co-author, so reasonably puts it. What's the truth? Is there a truth? Why should anyone really care about any of this? What Edelman—Wired's politics editor and a graduate of Yale Law School—does so expertly in his piece is untangle the bluster, myths, and scaremongering to make room for a reasonable discussion. He also leans hard on pre-Section 230 legal decisions and the history of common law to reorient the conversation toward something, dare I say, constructive.

The article is very much worth your time. It's also, currently, behind a hard, subscriber-only paywall. Sorry about that. But here's one of the most salient points Edelman makes, which is enough to get the imagination firing in all sorts of directions: "Section 230’s defenders may be right that without it, Facebook and Google would not be the world-devouring behemoths they are today," Edelman writes. "If the law had developed slowly, if they faced potential liability for user behavior, the impossibility of careful moderation at scale might have kept them from growing as quickly as they did and spreading as far. What would we have gotten in their place? Perhaps smaller, more differentiated platforms, an ecosystem in which more conversations took place within intentional communities rather than in a public square full of billions of people, many of them behaving like lunatics." What a digital world we got. What a digital world we could've maybe had—and still could maybe have. —Dante A. Ciampaglia

Maze in the shape of a brain

Jackie Niam/Getty Images

Creating new pathways in our brains needs to be part of any post-pandemic infrastructure plan!

Build Back Better (Brain Edition)

Trying new things doesn’t just make you smarter—it also makes you happier. “There is a connection between novelty and happiness,” said Dr. Laurie Santos, who teaches a hugely popular Yale course called Psychology and the Good Life. Santos spoke to GQ for this great article on the brain-changing magic of new experiences. “Novel things also capture our attention … you’re more likely to notice things and be present," she said. "There’s lots of evidence that simply being more present can improve our mood and happiness.” That has been a challenge over the past year, as we’ve all been endlessly present in the same places, with the same familiar faces, week after week and month after month. New encounters are a workout for the mind, especially encounters with new people. Take that away by spending a full calendar year on Zoom, and you soon find yourself Googling “memory loss,” “early Alzheimer's symptoms,” or “how do I know if I’m losing my mind?”
Lots of people have described different versions of quarantine brain, the feeling that your mind is slowly turning to mush after being stuck in front of a computer screen and seeing only your family for days on end. It’s almost reassuring to know that we weren’t just imagining it. There really is a cognitive impact to dull sameness. “Think about an old city, where the roads haven’t been repaired in a long time,” explained the neuroscientist David Eagleman. “When you’re confronting novelty all the time, you’re building new pathways and bridges and roadways in there.” Researchers did an experiment where they tracked people’s cell phones and found they were happier on days when they had more “roaming entropy,” when they wandered farther away from their normal routines. Now that the world is reopening, my goal is to raise “roaming entropy” to an art form. I’ll start with rediscovering the people and places I’ve missed so badly during lockdown, feeling newly grateful for old friends, then take it from there. “It is the most important thing that you can do for your brain, always put it in novel situations, give it novel challenges,” Eagleman recommends. “Other people are the biggest challenge that the brain has, because you never know what the other person is gonna say or do.” Bring ‘em on. —Stefanie Sanford

Schoolgirl crying on background of classmates teasing her

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Bullying is a pervasive and serious issue, with real consequences for the mental, emotional health of students. And as a North Carolina court ruled recently, bullying creates very real hazards to a child's education, too.

The Anti-Bullying Pulpit

In my home state of North Carolina, the Supreme Court declared unanimously that students have constitutional protection against school bullying. “In this case we consider whether an individual may bring a claim under the North Carolina Constitution for a school board’s deliberate indifference to continual student harassment,” wrote Chief Justice Paul Newby. “As alleged, this indifference denied students their constitutionally guaranteed right to the opportunity to receive a sound basic education.” The justices ordered a trial court to reexamine the case, which involves a pattern of harassment against three students at an elementary school in eastern North Carolina. In a lawsuit against the school district, the students’ mother alleges that teachers and administrators failed to protect her kids from ongoing abuse by their classmates. The court’s ruling doesn’t settle the merits of the claim, but it does endorse the idea that pervasive bullying can amount to a violation of students’ rights.

The “sound basic education” clause, or very similar provisions, exist in many state constitutions. There have been plenty of court fights in recent years about whether state legislatures are funding schools at a level that meets the constitutional guarantee, with North Carolina’s Leandro case being one of the most prominent. School officials have generally been supportive of those efforts to use constitutional mandates to boost funding, but they’re not excited about the prospect of courts weighing in on the soundness of school bullying policies. The North Carolina School Boards Association opposed the latest constitutional suit, even as the ACLU and disability rights advocates supported it. School officials worry that an expanded definition of student rights will mean more claims against administrators and greater pressure on schools to address bullying and other conditions that pose a challenge to the learning environment. A plain reading of the Supreme Court’s order makes that pretty clear. “Where a government entity with control over the school is deliberately indifferent to ongoing harassment that prevents a student from accessing his constitutionally guaranteed right to a sound basic education, the student has a colorable claim under the North Carolina Constitution,” the justices found. Bullies beware. —Eric Johnson

Advertisement from 1971 showing a conceptual illustration of an expansive, living room-like coach cabin in an airplane

James Vaughan/flickr

Make you a deal, American Airlines: You cut American Way magazine, we get this kind of in-flight experience. What do you say?

A Magazine That Has Reached Its Final Destination

Call me old fashioned (or, fine, a geriatric millennial), but I like a good magazine. I voraciously consume content online, but it's healthy for my brain (and eyes) to pick up a physical publication to read some piece of longform journalism. But I also like physical magazines because they give me ideas—as a journalist, as a consumer, and, often, as a traveler, which is why I always look for an airline's in-flight publication when flying the friendly skies. Alas, rocketing through the air in a pressurized metal tube is getting pretty boring with news this week that American Airlines is ceasing publication of American Way, which has been in passengers' seat-back pockets since 1966. (Delta, Southwest, and Alaska Airlines also cancelled its magazines after pausing production during the pandemic.) "Dana Lawrence, American's managing director of global brand marketing, said airlines are eliminating magazines due in large part to travelers' changing tastes for in-flight entertainment and airlines' increasingly long lineup of free options, much of it powered by in-flight Wi-Fi," USA Today reported.

I like a good hate-watch of a trashy movie on a long flight as much as the guy next to me who is absolutely infringing on my personal space. (And when the entertainment centers work.) I also like learning about the cities and culture and people that are zooming by below me at hundreds of miles of hour. But, OK, point taken, American. Where I have beef, though, is with "veteran travel analyst" Henry Harteveldt, who told USA Today that these magazines "are relics from the decades past that probably should have been killed off a long time ago or at least digitized. ... I don't think frequent travelers or infrequent travelers will notice or really care to any great degree if the magazine disappears. And certainly nobody ever chose an airline because of the in-flight magazine." First, they were digitized, thanks. (Delta Sky is now offline.) And second, yes, travelers will notice. They might be nerds like me or they might be a businessperson who wants to decompress for 10 minutes with the achingly-easy crossword puzzle in the back of the magazine, but they'll notice. And as much as I love the digital world, our media diet can't be all the result of code and algorithms. We need some tactile human curation, too. Air travel is already a series of indignities. If we have to suffer through disappearing legroom, exorbitant fees, and diminishing snacks, can't we at least have a magazine to distract our attention? —Dante A. Ciampaglia