When a high school student says that sitting in a dark theater for eight hours with hundreds of sexagenarians, simply listening to really smart people talk about one topic, is “super cool,” “inspiring” and “powerful,” you know something is happening that is worth repeating.

That something is the annual Camden Conference, which offers the Camden Conference in the Classroom program, supported by private donations that subsidize the $150 ticket cost so high school students and their teachers can attend the conference. In the past, topics have ranged from immigration to “Is This China’s Century?” and have featured panels of Pulitzer Prize winners, reporters, Ph.D.s and J.D.s, photographers and engineers, theologians and communists, diplomats and former heads of state – gathering in Camden every February to share their informed perspectives and experiences in relation to one compelling central idea.

The topic this year – practically made for high school students – is “The Media Revolution: Changing the World.” Attendees will learn not only about how different media are transforming public discourse and democracy, but also about how access to media, or the lack of it, affects communication and power distribution globally.

Students will come from as far away as Piscataquis Community High School in Guilford near Maine’s 100 Mile Wilderness. There, teacher Joseph Hennessey, last year’s Maine Teacher of the Year, offers an elective for which the Camden Conference is the curriculum. Hennessey, whose class has attended for several years, observes that the conference “helps our students … to confer with peers and other community members, and to further broaden their intellectual horizons and global awareness.” Regarding this year’s topic specifically, Hennessey adds, “in today’s society, where social isolationism and political protectionism run rampant, the opportunity to engage in critical, independent thought and conversation with others and the world at large is crucial,” not just for high schoolers, but for all Americans, too.

These fortunate Piscataquis Community High School students will be joined by others from high schools in Bethel, Auburn, Blue Hill and Portland as they watch the live-streamed presentation from five different venues. This year’s conference begins at 7:30 p.m. Friday and wraps up at 12:30 p.m. Sunday.

Few would dispute that a primary role of American education is to ensure the creation of an informed citizenry, capable of developing ethical positions based on facts that represent diverse perspectives. Exposed to the cascade of coverage of the impeachment hearings, local and national debates and elections and the ever-shifting landscape of government policies that directly affect their lives, students need to be able to make sense of and discern the difference among competing narratives, the “fake news” and the real news, the left and the right. How will they recognize bias and tone, determine what sources are reliable, assess what information is relevant or merely a red herring? And how can they appreciate the value of a free press if they are unaware of restrictions on the press elsewhere?

Portland High School history teacher Troy Crabtree, who has taken students to the conference for five years, notes that “students struggle more and more to recognize accurate sources of information and to be able to critically consider how their contributions and reactions to social media are impacting their understanding of themselves and the world around them.” These struggles endanger our democracy.

Fortunately, hundreds of Maine’s high school students will be seated in the audience at this year’s Camden Conference. There, they will listen to and ask questions of a formidable panel of experts from around the globe. These speakers represent all types of media, from photography to blogging to print; collectively, the speakers have covered news in virtually every country, and they espouse diverse points of view.  As Maine’s teachers know, our students are hungry for opportunities like the Camden Conference where they can engage with and discuss complex ideas and have their own beliefs challenged by really smart people. This year’s Camden Conference in the Classroom program will give them that chance. Says Deering student Glynis O’Meara, who attended last year’s conference on China: “A strong and free press is essential because if we don’t understand our world, we’ll never be able to change it.”


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