Nov 27 2008

Ignorantly decrying ignorance

Category: education,politicsharmonicminer @ 10:22 am

Kathleen Parker has not been my favorite person of late, due to her support for Obama, for what I consider to be trivial reasons, but she quotes an interesting study on voter ignorance. The report from the Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ISI) on the nation’s civic literacy finds that most Americans are too ignorant to vote. After quoting all the various bits of ignorance on the part of the public about basic historical and constitutional principles and facts, which I’ve discussed before, we are treated to this:

What’s behind the dumbing down of America?

The ISI found that passive activities, such as watching television (including TV news) and talking on the phone, diminish civic literacy. Actively pursuing information through print media and participating in high-level conversations — even, potentially, blogging — makes one smarter.

The ISI insists that higher-education reforms aimed at civic literacy are urgently needed. Who could argue otherwise? But historian Rick Shenkman, author of “Just How Stupid Are We?” thinks reform needs to start in high school. His strategy is both poetic (to certain ears) and pragmatic: Require students to read newspapers, and give college freshman weekly quizzes on current events.

Did he say newspapers?! Shenkman even suggests government subsidies for newspaper subscriptions, as well as federal tuition subsidies for students who perform well on civics tests. They could be paid from a special fund created by, say, a “Too Many Stupid Voters Act.”

Not only would citizens be smarter, but also newspapers might be saved. Announcements of newsroom cuts, which ultimately hurt quality, have become routine. Just this week, USA Today announced the elimination of about 20 positions, while the Newark Star-Ledger, as it cuts its news staff by 40 percent, lost almost its entire editorial board in a single day.

In his book, Shenkman, founder of George Mason University’s History News Network, is tough on everyday Americans. Why, he asks, do we value polls when clearly The People don’t know enough to make a reasoned judgment?

The founding fathers, Shenkman points out, weren’t so enamored of The People, whom they distrusted. Hence a Republic, not a Democracy. They understood that an ignorant electorate was susceptible to emotional manipulation and feared the tyranny of the masses.

Both Shenkman and the ISI pose a bedeviling question, as crucial as any to the nation’s health: Who will govern a free nation if no one understands the mechanics and instruments of that freedom?

And there you have it.  The solution to ignorance about government is carefully targeted government subsidies.  The irony is breathtaking.

After listing all the various fundamentals unknown by too many people, the solution is to “Require students to read newspapers, and give college freshman weekly quizzes on current events.”   But that won’t work, because most states have standards for curriculum, and those standards don’t involve students understanding the historical and constitutional background of current events.   Oh, they may in principle, but it clearly is not the outcome.   It won’t do much good to have students read articles and discuss them, if the discussion does not precede from a reasonable knowledge of the constitution and history.  Ignorant people can read newspapers and not really grasp what’s being said, and what’s being left unsaid.

Add government subsidies for newspaper subscriptions, and maybe direct aid to newspapers that are cutting staff and presumably lowering quality.  The problem with THAT is that journalists often don’t seem to grasp much more about history and government than average people on the street.   And again, many of them certainly don’t have any particular understanding of the constitution, as far as I can see.  There is a distinction between being a political junkie who knows the names of Senatorial aides and has cocktails with them, and actually grasping the concepts of government in the Federalist Papers.

I’m going to go out on a limb.  Feel free to try sawing it off with me still on it.  But our schools, colleges, universities and newspapers are overwhelmingly run by the Left.  The Left is not fundamentally about knowledge, or historical context, or constitutional adherence.  The Left is fundamentally about creating certain outcomes in society, mostly economic ones, but also certain social ones.  The Left is not picky about how it’s done.

Do I trust school teachers to accurately portray, say, the 1st Amendment on religious freedom, or will some bogus “separation of church and state” argument be made, as if it was part of the Constitution?  Will they accurately portray the intent of the Founders in the 2nd Amendment?  What will they have to say about the 10th, and whether congress and the courts have actually followed it?  I find that most of my students think the Supreme Court exists to change laws that “aren’t fair to people”, but the notion of “fairness” they have in mind is playground equality, not constitutional adherence.  I’m pretty sure they learned that concept from some combination of the schools and media.

Here is the best thing we could do (not that it will ever happen).  We should require every school to have an equal number of Democrat and Republican teachers of history and civics, and the same for University professors.  (This would be the real “fairness doctrine”.)  We should require the faculty to debate each other on various issues, in front of students, regularly.  Students should be given forms to rate the arguments, and one of the rating criteria should be “refers to historically accurate interpretation of the Constitution”.  In order to even make that rating, students would have to learn the constitution and some historical backdrop to it.  And witnessing and rating the quality of argumentation between disagreeing faculty would give students the opportunity to make informed decisions about their own positions.

I know, it’s a pipe dream.  Teachers aren’t that brave, and much prefer having captive audiences in the classroom who don’t present serious challenges to pet theories and academically impressive sounding ignorance.

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