Home National Politics Civics Education and Today’s American Crisis

Civics Education and Today’s American Crisis

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This will be my op/ed for the coming week in my very red congressional district (VA-06). That it was mostly from conservatives that one heard about the need for more “civics” education played into my taking the approach in this piece.

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Over the years, there’s been a lot of talk about how civics education has been disappearing from our schools. I’m wondering if that might be a factor in the political crisis into which our nation has descended.

We ought not take for granted that people will form a good picture of the world. Especially when it comes to things outside of our immediate experience – including abstract things like “democracy” and a “Constitution” and “the rule of law.”

When something falls within our sensory field – like driving down a road and seeing where it curves – we naturally understand things reasonably well. But for understanding the meaning of our nation, as our founders saw it, that hardly happens automatically. Some education – “civics” — is necessary.

Admittedly, the old civics courses were weak and largely devoid of impact, but at least they conveyed the message that America is about much more than a flag to wrap oneself in, more than something about which to shout to the world, “We’re # 1.” At least it told young people that our system was designed to operate in certain ways in order to serve well the nation and its people.

Ideally, such education would convey more than just memorized knowledge of phrases like “checks and balances” and “the rule of law.” Ideally, it would instill a real love of the country based on the values and worldview that informed the creation of the American system of government, one of the most important advances of justice in the history of humankind.

Perhaps it would help young Americans gain some understanding of what life would be like if we lost the protections our founders instituted for us—protections like “freedom of speech,” “freedom of religion,” “due process.”

Such education could convey the importance of state power being prohibited from obtaining coerced confessions— a prohibition put into the Constitution by founders who knew the history of castles with dungeons and instruments of torture.

It could help people grasp how a free press, far from being “the enemy of the people,” is an indispensable protector of “liberty and justice for all.”

Real civics education would bring to life the blessings of living in a society in which the rulers are subject to the will of the people, and not vice versa.

Without such education, people can be prey to other images of what good governance looks like, including false images purveyed by skilled deceivers working to lead people into inadvertently supporting the demolition of the Constitution, rather than insisting on its preservation.

Of course, no one’s picture of the world gets things entirely right– or even captures a glimpse of everything that is important. But the inevitable falling short of the full truth is different from buying into gross falsehood.

Where we are ignorant – as on abstract matters of political values outside our direct experience – all sorts of lies can be sold to fill the void. Language, which is the font of much of humankind’s power, also makes us vulnerable to deception.

And at a time when the Lie is growing in power – as it has been on the American right since Rush Limbaugh and Newt Gingrich began the process of selling a seductive stream of lies – then it becomes more likely that people’s vulnerability to being led grossly astray about things they don’t directly see will be exploited.

Hence my wondering if there has been an unfortunate convergence of the rising power of the Lie and the declining “civics” education to instill in Americans the important values embedded in the system our founders gave us.

Hence my wondering whether the people in conservative America –had all Americans been given a good grounding in American civics — would have refused to listen to a political party that was willing, among other blatant violations of the spirit of our founders’ vision, to

  • Abuse the Constitution’s provision of “advise and consent” –unprecedentedly — to steal a Supreme Court seat.
  • Make it a party priority –unprecedentedly — to make the President from another party fail, even though that means crippling the whole nation, and thwarting the will of the people, through across-the-board obstruction.
  • Deprive whole groups of people of their vote because they tend to support the “other side.”
  • Support a President in his attempt to obstruct justice, meaning to defeat the rule of law.
  • And support a President who – unprecedentedly — usurps and defies Congress’s constitutional powers.

Of course, the deceivers also enlisted powerful passions – fears and angers — in their followers. But even so, perhaps if those people had been educated to see that there’s something sacred about that vision of our founders – about how our government is supposed to work — they would have resisted the dark seductions of the liars and insisted on having leaders who defend the integrity of the gift our founders gave us.