Monday, December 10, 2018

Ensuring Well-Informed Citizens through Public Education, Then and Now


In October, I had the privilege of participating in a Tedx event sponsored by the University of South Carolina.  The subject of my talk was the danger our democracy faces when we fail to ensure equal and adequate public education.  I offered warnings and lessons from both the perspective of our nation’s founders and those who rebuilt our nation in the period following the Civil War.  The number of parallels between the post-Civil War period and today are striking, particularly the advent of new technology—the penny press newspapers then and the 24-hour news cycle and blogs today.  The challenge today is use yesterday’s lessons to solve today’s problems in school funding, critical literacy, and democratic participation.  The following is a couple of highlights from the talk:

Democracy is a double edged sword.  It places political power in the hands of the people, but to succeed, those people need to be informed well enough to make smart decisions.  An educated citizenry cannot be easily manipulated.  Not easily oppressed.  And educated citizenry will guard its freedom jealously.  And when these citizens get it wrong—and they will—they will disagree with one another.  And this slows down any major moves in the wrong direction.

So the inherent tension of democracy revolves around the need to place power in the hands of people who may or may not be well-informed.  Our founders—the people who wrote the federal and state constitutions we live under—firmly believed the only solution was the only solution was to make sure we have public education system that cultivates the skills that citizens need to participate in democracy.

The problem

In today’s world, civics knowledge and critical literacy are, well, critical.  By civics I mean how our government works.  A large chunck of the public has next to no idea. . . . [But] we also need critical literacy to evaluate what we learn about government and its policies.  About one in three Americans are either illiterate or rudimentary readers.   Half can’t read a book written at an eighth-grade level and comprehend it.  And the sad thing is, that most of us who can do better, don’t.  59 percent of the time, we don’t even read stories behind the links we post, share, and retweet on social media.

If our democracy rests on a literate and well-informed citizenry, we should be scared.   

. . . .

This is nothing new.

The US started as an experiment in democracy. Our founding fathers were familiar with the monarchs of Europe and taxation without representation here at home.  They wanted people to rule themselves rather than be ruled over by a king. 

Some of our most notable founding fathers weren’t entirely sure it would work.  They knew democracy’s risks.  They knew democracy could turn into mob rule.  They knew the masses might decide to take property away from the wealthy and redistribute it.  But what they seemed to fear most was that the uneducated masses would be misled by unscrupulous politicians or defrauded at the ballot box. . . .

. . . .[Later,] the Civil War brought the tension between reality and our democratic ideas to a head.  The South, and many other states, were not real democracies.

The hurdles that the nation faced in making that transition were in many ways no different than the challenges we face today. . . .

Everything revolved around the flow of information and it was interesting a very chaotic flow of information, just like today.

They had the penny presses.  They were in many respects like the blogs of today.  Everyone had their own press and paper.  And they were just as polarized.  National, state, and local political parties had their own papers.  From the tip of main to the edges of the western frontier, every little town and hamlet had its own newspaper had its own newspaper.  And so did a lot of other people.  Some focused on politics. Others focused on scandal and intrigue.

. . . .

The nation was primarily rural and largely disconnected, save but one thing—the newspaper.  If a citizen wanted to know what his representative was doing in Washington DC or in the state capital for that matter, he had only one way of knowing.  That was by reading the papers.  And the average person had to sort through a lot of differing accounts and opinions in the penny presses to get to the bottom of things.  They couldn’t just take someone’s word for it.

At the close of the Civil War, Congress sought a solution that would bring millions of new people into our democracy and rebuild it.  The solution was public education.

Congress told Southern states that if they were going to reenter the Union, they had to get serious about democracy.  This meant extending the vote to African Americans and radically expanding their public education systems.  As a result, all of the southern states amended their state constitutions to mandate the provision of public education.  Other Northern states would do the same in the coming years.  And in fact, following the civil war, no state would ever again enter the Union without a provision in their state constitution mandating public education. 

This period offers some important lessons. First is the general importance of public education to democracy. Second, the education system must be equally open and uniformly available to all. Third, that public education must prepare citizens for the demands of democratic participation.

What should we do today?

. . . . [As a country,] we cannot forget that the skills and outcomes we want students to obtain depend on state support----money.  Recent studies show that twenty percent increases in school funding would cut the black-white graduation gap in half.  They also show that funding cuts over the past decade depressed student achievement.  Yet, most states continue to fund education, in real dollar terms, at a lower level than they did in 2008, ten years ago.  And schools with the most disadvantaged students in the most disenfranchised communities tend to have the least resources.  We simply cannot claim that our education system is leveling the playing field and securing democracy’s future if we won’t fund it adequately and equally.

[As individuals,] we face many of the same challenges as our children, but it is on us to make ourselves better consumers of information.  No one is coming to re-school us.  And we are for now, the ones in whose hands this democracy is entrusted.

We are in both a better position and worse position than we were back in the 1800s.  Our position is worse because we have more to deal with: radio, television, print, social media and our cell phones.

But we are in better position to navigate the noise because we have access to real information. . . .

We should take these opportunities to be good stewards of information and to contribute to the civic conversation in a positive way.  As a scholar, citizen, and just everyday reader, I have found that there are at least two ways to do that. . . .

Watch the full talk here.

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