Helen Lee Bouygues, whose nonprofit Reboot Foundation focuses on education, said in Forbes that “being informed is a necessary part of discussing and debating public issues with our fellow citizens. … To combat conspiracy theory and misinformation America will need to relearn why information is important in the first place.”
Many intelligent and patriotic Americans have been saying this for some time. Three years ago, in the middle of the Trump administration, two of the smartest education writers in the country, Robert Pondiscio of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and Richard Kahlenberg of the Century Foundation, said only deeper schooling in how government works would rescue us.
Pondiscio, a civics teacher and a writer, said a new Advanced Placement U.S. Government and Politics course could be the “means of getting back into the civic education game in earnest.” Kahlenberg said we needed to confront our failure “at what the nation’s founders saw as education’s basic purpose,” preparing us for self-government.
I am glad these bright people have such faith in schools’ potential for good. But I don’t think education is going to make much of a difference.
Politics and history were always my favorite courses. Somewhere in my garage there’s a piece of paper that says I have a bachelor of arts in government. I know our Constitution’s proud record. But I also realize most Americans have always found the subject dull and the demands for self-improvement unconvincing.
When we gather, we talk about friends, family, food, sports, movies and whatever is trending on the Internet. The effect of the filibuster on senatorial approval of judges or the intricacies of redistricting rarely come up. Turnout at the polls in 2020 was the largest since 1900, yet despite the rise in mail ballots and extra voting days, one-third of us still didn’t bother to cast a ballot.
Please don’t try to tell me that Americans understood the principles of democracy better in golden days gone by. A U.S. history test given to 1,500 Texas students 103 years ago found that 67 percent of the answers from high-schoolers and 51 percent of the answers from college undergraduates were wrong. Seventy-seven years ago, only 13 percent of a sample of 7,000 first-year college students knew that James Madison was president during the War of 1812. Forty-four years ago, a national sample of 2,000 first-year college students on average answered only half of 42 American history multiple-choice questions correctly.
Many assume the more time we spend in school, the better we know the lessons of American history and the more likely we are to apply them. That may be true, but those who celebrate Joe Biden winning the college-graduate vote should remember that about 22 million people with equally impressive bachelor’s degrees voted for the other guy.
Have you ever thought carefully about why you voted the way you did in the last election? How big a factor was your education?
How we were raised, where we grew up, where we live, where we work and, perhaps most influential, our closest friends’ views on politics are more important, I think, in making such decisions. We prefer to share the views of those we love. My wife and I have been together for 55 years so far. Somewhere in the middle of that time, we voted differently. The arguments weren’t much fun.
The email I mentioned above from Hoskin had a drastic solution: “In the short run perhaps we should adopt the strategy of our communist adversaries and establish re-education camps.” He meant a gentler, open-minded version of that terrible policy, but I still don’t think it will work.
Kahlenberg told me recently that civics lessons will have more power if they focus “not just on the mechanics of democracy but on its central premise: that all citizens have equal worth.” Pondiscio agreed, saying we have to go deeper than our differences on the issues of the day. Civic education “without a shared sense of civic commitment and moral investment, a sense of respect and even reverence for civic virtues … won’t amount to very much,” he said.
Giving good teachers more time to explore civics with their students can’t do any harm. But I suspect how we vote will be more affected by slow changes in who we voters are than by better civics lessons for us in school.