Joyce Appleby, a renowned historian of the Founding Fathers and republican ideology, wrote in her 2001 book “Inheriting the Revolution” that the first generation of Americans (1790-1830) believed a good education was a requirement for every responsible citizen. The majority of men, and notably a wide cross-section of women, in the early days of the republic viewed education as a “critical bridge to responsible citizenship,” according to Appleby. They admired the intellect of our Founding Fathers and felt a patriotic duty to elevate their knowledge so they could better understand the leaders and politics of the day, and thus become better citizens.
In 1835, Alexis de Tocqueville captured his enthusiasm for America and its enlightened citizens in his famous book, “Democracy in America,” proclaiming that in the future, “all the world will be America.” How times have changed.
Soul-Searching for America’s Broken Ethics
Following Boris Yeltsin appointment of Vladimir Putin as his successor to the Russian presidency in 1999, after the death of China’s Deng Xiaoping in 1997 and, finally, at the end of the Arab Spring in 2012, the world has seen a reversal of democratic government and the rise of authoritarianism. More than a few Americans would say that had President Donald Trump been reelected to a second term, it is likely that many of our institutions and norms built to protect democracy would have suffered a similar fate. Many were already under assault in his first term, like the politicized Department of Justice.
For the first time in our history, we are witnessing something other than a peaceful, orderly transition of presidential power that was enshrined in our American memory beginning with Washington’s “Farewell Address” in 1796. We have never seen anything like Trump’s assault on the facts, the electoral process and the sacred nature of a free and fair vote for all Americans. How in the world can more than half of Republicans believe the election was rigged?
Disinformation and Lies
The answer — a campaign of relentless disinformation and lies, spread by social media and irresponsible cable TV and talk radio journalists, believed to be true by a large swath of the population, who apparently received little or no instruction in civics and US history. If this debacle teaches us anything it is that civics and history deserve a much bigger role in our primary and secondary education curricula, even at the expense of a reduced STEM (Science Technology Engineering Math) curricula that has been over-emphasized for too long.
Look at the voting process. Several recent surveys of Republican voters indicate that anywhere from 50% to 80% of them believe the 2020 presidential election was not free and fair. This despite the fact that Christopher Krebs, the former head of the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure and Security Agency and a former Microsoft cybersecurity expert, stated that the recent election was “the most secure in US history.” Every state and every Republican and Democratic governor has certified their results with only negligible, immaterial changes in vote counts.
Yet we are witnessing a horrific display of threats against state officials — of both parties — who have certified the election results by those who do not trust the voting process. Why? Because they do not understand the voting process and how it is protected. Many do not understand the Electoral College either. This unacceptable in America. We are looking a lot more like a banana republic than the beacon of democracy to the rest of the world. Clearly America’s reputation has suffered terribly around the globe.
The vitriol and emotion, amplified and reinforced on cable TV and social media, builds continuously until it drowns out rational thought. These conditions — extreme ideologies, absence of compromise and bipartisanship and the threat of domestic terrorism created as a result — are a major threat to our republic. Left unchecked, the situation will worsen and could destroy us if we don’t act immediately. Let’s hope and pray that nobody gets hurt as a result of these mindless protests dangerously getting close to becoming violent.
There are some short-term political and economic solutions to mitigate our divisions. Not the focus of this essay, but initiatives like publicly-financed campaigns to take “dark money” out of politics will go a long way to bringing the parties together. Economic policies to rebuild the middle class and reverse the growth of inequality will foster a shared prosperity to reduce fear and anxiety amongst a large portion of our population.
However, these political and economic solutions will not take hold unless we begin to restore the health of our underlying culture and start to remember who we were as Americans, and who we need to be going forward. It starts and ends with an informed electorate. In times of crisis, we look to history — and those who made it into history books for all the right reasons — to instruct us in a time of need.
A Time of Need
The 19th-century thinker Horace Mann often called the founding father of public education in America called out the importance of an educated public to the health of a democratic government: “A republican form of government, without intelligence in the people, must be, on a vast scale, what a mad-house, without superintendent or keepers, would be on a small one.” Even before Mann, Thomas Jefferson offered similar wisdom: “Ignorance and despotism seem made for each other, [but if the new nation could] enlighten the people generally … tyranny and the oppressions of mind and body will vanish, like evil spirits at the dawn of the day.”
Regarding the importance of a strong civics curriculum in our schools, we have George Washington stating, on the one bookend of US history: “A primary object should be the education of our youth in the science of government. In a republic, what species of knowledge can be equally important? And what duty more pressing than communicating it to those who are to be the future guardians of the liberties of the country?”
Echoing similar opinions some 244 years later as the world’s longest-enduring democratic, self-governing republic, is Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts: “But in the ensuing years [following the ratification of the Constitution], we have come to take democracy for granted, and civic education has fallen by the wayside. In our age, when social media can instantly spread rumor and false information on a grand scale, the public’s need to understand our government, and the protections it provides, is ever more vital.”
This is quite a commentary on the importance of education generally, and civics specifically, to the health and continued survival of “American exceptionalism.” Beyond the voting process and the Electoral College, how well does the public understand how government is structured, how it works? The Annenberg Public Policy Center reported the results of a broad survey of Americans and found that only one in four Americans could name all three branches of the federal government. This an astounding discovery. The same survey found that fewer than 15% of the same cohort could name more than one First Amendment right, with only 37% of respondents able to name a single First Amendment right — their response, by and large, was freedom of speech.
How beneficial would it be to society if everyone knew that our federal government does not sanction any religion, nor prevent anyone from practicing their own beliefs, or not? Freedom of the press, the right to peaceably assemble and the right to petition the government round out all the First Amendment rights.
How are we doing in terms of education outcomes in this age of information overload, hyper-partisanship and emotion crowding out reason and thoughtful reflection? Not so great. According to DoSomething.org — a youth nonprofit whose corporate sponsors include 3M, Ford Foundation, Johnson & Johnson, Google and General Motors among many others — in 1985, the quantity and quality of high school graduates in the US as a group was ranked number one in the world. But by 2015, our high school population was ranked 36 in the world.
Michael Porter at the Harvard Business School has been conducting expansive and thorough surveys since 2011 of more than 2,000 senior-level business leaders, across a wide spectrum of industries in the US, regarding the competitiveness of the US economy. The conclusions of the study team strongly align with the findings of DoSomething.org noted above. Porter has concluded that shared prosperity is a key component of an economy’s competitiveness and that the US economy is failing to deliver shared prosperity to an ever-shrinking middle class.
More importantly, Porter has tied this economic failure to political and cultural failures. To find solutions to our political failures — climate change, inequality, health care and immigration — we must focus on revising election and campaign financing laws. To find answers to our cultural failures — systemic racism, increased polarization, domestic terrorism and crime — we must improve outcomes in K-12 public education as the most critical solution.
There is nothing more important to the long-term survival of our democracy than a large investment in education as well as in our defense and military capability. Turns out, that as a nation, we invest about the same amount annually in each, which is surprising to most people. The 2020 defense budget is projected to be about $750 billion, and total spending on public education — elementary plus secondary — in 2015 across the country, according to the National Center for Educational Statistics, was $706 billion. The problem is that education is funded and administered locally and, as a result, there is a wide variation in the quality of its delivery as the DoSomething.org and the Harvard studies both demonstrate.
The current noise and disinformation around election fraud — a president asking state legislators to overturn a popular vote in choosing electors to the Electoral College and how presidents can lose the popular vote of the nation and still be elected — threaten our democracy. How? In short, even more people begin to lose trust in our government to be fair, and “for the People.” Trust in Congress is already at an historical low point according to Pew Research.
How do we restore this trust? A strong civics education is a good start. Why is this so important? Here’s the deal: The 2016 presidential election came down to fewer than 80,000 voters in Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania. Even though Trump lost the popular vote among over 125 million total voters, his narrow wins in these three battleground states gave him an Electoral College majority of 306 over Hillary Clinton’s 232.
This means that just 0.06% of all the voters in America determined the outcome of the 2016 election. In the 2000 presidential election, it came down to 537 votes in Florida. It is frightening to consider that so few voters could make such a difference, and how easily it might be to corrupt such a small number of voters. If that doesn’t argue for a strong civics curriculum in our schools, what does?
Education is the single most important component of the common good for maintaining the long-term health of our democracy. Why? Because we will not meaningfully transform our political and economic models until we begin to transform our culture. And you do not transform culture by screaming at people. You transform culture by educating people and celebrating rational discourse among all citizens.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.