A while back, I tried to learn French in my car, with tapes. I remember my delight when I would stumble on some little bit of French I had heard in a movie. It was a little advantage, a head start, something I already knew. Movies and television can do that for us. The West Wing is particularly good about using real examples in its fictional drama: after 9/11, they dropped the fiction almost entirely for one episode and had the various characters simply tell people stuff about terrorism and fundamentalism and Islam. These ‘factoids’ are easy to dismiss: the picture they present is incomplete and skewed and soon outdated. But factoids give people starting points. There is something they know now about political polling, gun control, tax policy, nuclear containment – and the distance from “knowing something” to “knowing more” is not nearly so long as the distance from “knowing nothing” to anyplace interesting.
The new world information order, with Google at its center, adds very substantial value to such mini-lessons and factoids. If one knows what topic to ask about, one can easily find gradual introductions and multiple viewpoints and all the apparatus one needs for self-education. If the media provide some simple starting points, interested persons can take it from there, as far as they want to.