Last March, U.S. Secretary for Education Arne Duncan addressed a conference on civic education and hit on some of the many ways America’s public institutions and education system are failing the next generation of our citizens.
The statistics he shared should frighten every voter: Two-thirds of Americans cannot name our three branches of government, though 75 percent of people can name each of the Three Stooges. Not even half of the nation can name a single member of the U.S. Supreme Court. More than 25 percent do not know who our forebears fought during the Revolutionary War. Yet, more than 80 percent of the public can name who sang “Beat It” and “Billie Jean.”
In a Newsweek survey, Duncan continued, almost 40 percent of America’s citizens failed the U.S. citizenship test and nearly a full third could not identify Joe Biden as vice president.
“Our founders, from George Washington to Thomas Jefferson, understood that informed citizens were the lifeblood of a healthy democracy,” Duncan asserted. “They understood that civics education was the first bulwark against tyranny. A half century later, Abraham Lincoln said that education was ‘the most important subject which we as a people can be engaged in.’ Lincoln believed that, for every citizen, an appreciation of ‘the value of our free institutions’ was ‘an object of vital importance.’”
Over the past half-century or longer, we have seen the level of civic education in America diminish to astonishingly pathetic levels. The result is increasing disengagement by the average citizen in political discourse. This disengagement is apparent at all levels of government, but, perhaps, most damaging at the local level where governments should be smaller, more accessible and more accountable.
Conservatives are fond of small government. Perhaps there are valid arguments for times when smaller government is best. But, I can find no reason why the “small” in “small government” must mean low voter turnout. Yet, here we are — a nation faced with record-low voter participation with ballots cast by people with abysmal knowledge on who our elected officials are and how the government we elect actually works.
Republicans want it that way. In jurisdiction after jurisdiction across this nation, GOP election board leaders, secretaries of state, governors, state legislators and other officials are using their power to limit voting rights. Republicans are pushing voter identification laws, restricting early voting and putting heavy and burdensome requirements on small, civic organizations that run voter registration drives.
In places like Michigan, Republicans in state government even tried their novel and certainly unconstitutional “emergency manager” law, practically usurping locally-elected government in small (and mostly minority towns) and replacing them with a single, governor-appointed manager with nearly totalitarian control over all city functions.
All the while, most of America remains blissfully occupied by their favorite reality shows and pop singers despite the obvious encroachment of tyrannical government upon their lives and their liberties. No, no — I’m not talking about “Obamacare” or some radical socialism. This tyranny is worse — an insidious, barely seen and wantonly ignored movement to take the voice of the people out of the people’s government.
This election season, corporations and the super-rich elite will spend a staggering amount of money on political ads and campaigns. Corporations are going after their opponents no holds barred and putting the average American citizen right in their sights as elected officials and candidates become increasingly indebted to people and organizations who, if possible, would return us to the days of the plantation economy when every institution of American government existed for the sole purpose of making the rich richer and keeping labor cheap and plentiful, the dignity of humanity all but ignored in the face of potential profit.
But, ask any person on the street about the Michigan emergency manager law or voter identification laws and you’re more likely to be struck by lightning than get any sort of rational or informed discussion on the issues. And, that is where we, as a society, have failed. As American education has slipped, so too has our civic knowledge and awareness. As entertainment becomes increasingly omnipresent, so too do the numbers of fried brains unable to distinguish between Candidate A and Candidate B and their opposing political viewpoints.
The good news is that we do have a choice. We can choose to change. We can opt to learn and to grow. We can better fund our public schools, where the overwhelming majority of the next generation’s leaders and voters are currently learning what it means to be an American. Individually, we can take the time to read the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. We can start watching and reading the news. We can begin actually researching who we’re voting for and why.
For many of the thousands attending the Democratic National Convention here in Charlotte already know the value of civic education and many could debate the finer points of policy and law for hours and days. These are the people with the ability and knowledge to lead and to move our country forward. These are the people who can help Americans turn off the silly TV shows and video games, get off the couch and really participate in the privileges afforded them.
Until that happens, America will not change. And, if people never take action, the dream and the light that is our Great Experiment will be extinguished. I pray that day never comes. : :