An Enlightened Citizenry

By Barb Adams

I wrote this article in response to some people’s queries in regards to the difference between a caucus and a primary, but more importantly, in response to the studies I found on the web describing the failure of most Americans in basic civic education.

An Enlightened Citizenry

Thomas Jefferson said that “…whenever the people are well-informed, they can be trusted with their own government; that, whenever things get so far wrong as to attract their notice, they may be relied on to set them right”—but just how informed are U.S. citizens on the workings of government and their civic duties?

With the Iowa caucuses over and the focus shifting to upcoming primaries and the presidential election in November, the role of active, informed citizens helps to ensure that issues of importance to the general populace are part of the campaign agenda as well as helping to maintain the integrity of the election process.  But is there a crisis in America in regards to civic education (civics) and the process by which citizens become well-informed on matters involving the workings of our government?

In the book “Teaching America,” a collection of essays written by a diverse group of authors representing both conservatives and liberals, editor David Feith asserts that there is a civics crisis in America, and that a lack of general civics education has led to a citizenry that is less competent (ignorant) in the overall political community and process.

Jefferson himself placed education as the very foundation of democracy and as a prerequisite to vote.  He understood that civic ignorance and self-government could not exist together.  Furthermore, he understood that tyranny and a despotic government could only restrain its citizens and deprive them of their rights while they were ignorant.  Believing that only a popular government could safeguard democracy, he stated that “Every government degenerates when trusted to the rulers of the people alone.  The people themselves are its only safe depositories.  And to render them safe, their minds must be improved to a certain degree…”

Unfortunately, recent surveys have shown that the rate of civic “illiteracy” is growing in the U.S., and that there is a correlation between this illiteracy and a basic lack of both history and civics classes being taught in our educational system.  In a survey conducted in 2009 by the American Revolution Center, 1,000 adults were asked if they believed they were proficient in regards to the American Revolution and to the founding documents and principles.  Eighty-nine percent of those surveyed believed they had a passing knowledge of these subjects; but on the basic test administered, 83% failed.  Most didn’t know the three branches of government, their functions, or how laws are made; even fewer had the basic knowledge to engage in a democratic policy discussion.

Dr. Bruce Cole, former chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities and past-president of the American Revolution Center, believes this illiteracy rate reflects both the increasing lack of American history and civics education being taught in our schools in combination with historic textbooks that are “diluted and dull.”  According to Dr. Cole, “All of this matters because if Americans have no understanding of the past—of the great charters of our liberty, of the men and women who risked all to obtain and then safeguard our freedoms, and of the people, places and events that forged our collective memory—then they are like trees without roots, victims of what the great historian David McCullough calls American amnesia.”

“Our citizens’ unawareness of their own history not only steals their past, it robs them of a compass to the future.  If you don’t know where you’ve been, it’s hard to figure out where you need to go.  Americans unfamiliar with the creed of the Declaration of Independence or Constitution’s blueprint for our nation or the guarantee of their freedoms contained in the Bill of Rights can’t exercise their civic duties fully.”

And civic duties stretch well beyond voting.  A government “of the people, by the people, and for the people” requires an engaged, informed citizenry to make certain that the Founding Fathers’ vision of representative government is kept alive.  Without civic literacy, we cannot maintain our democracy.

“Civic literacy is the prerequisite for developing the ties that bind us together as a nation.  It enables us to disagree and pursue our interests and the common interest.  Without these tools, we are now moving in a different direction, heading toward what the philosopher Michael Sandel calls a ‘story-less condition,’ in which ‘there is no continuity between present and past, and therefore no responsibility, and therefore no possibility for acting together to govern ourselves.”  (Brennan Center for Justice Report, 2011)

With the November election looming large on the horizon, we need to remember our shared commitment to freedom.  “As we learn more about the American political tradition, we may see a shared commitment to freedom and equality behind partisan disputes,” Peter Berkowitz, senior fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution.  Let us become an enlightened citizenry, for “Democracy cannot long exist without enlightenment.” (Thomas Jefferson)

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