Dan Rodricks: This democracy will not survive ignorance, lies and misinformation

There is an echo of Benjamin Franklin in the quotes I am about to share from Horace Mann, the great advocate of public education who believed that American democracy would only last if Americans understood how it worked, participated in elections and took it seriously. the citizenship.

It’s worth going over, especially in this election week. I no longer assume that everyone understands it; the “it” is the primary value of democracy and what is needed to keep it alive.

First, a familiar quote from Franklin: “A republic, if you can keep it.”

It is believed that this was the sage’s answer to a question after the Constitutional Convention of 1787. Someone asked what kind of government had been formed. Franklin’s succinct response has been widely mentioned in recent years, the Trump years, as Americans ponder the future of this divided and wounded nation in a way not experienced since the Civil War.

In the wake of the attack on Capitol Hill on January 6, with so many Republican candidates in the midterms (including Republican candidates for governor and lieutenant governor of Maryland) doubting or denying Joe Biden’s victory in 2020, there is cause for concern.

if you caught Jordan Klepper’s most recent report about the election deniers on “The Daily Show with Trevor Noah,” you’d think half the country had never had a class in American government, never developed the ability to think critically, never grown up.

Klepper rides among the Make America Great Again crowd, so his man-on-the-street opinion pieces are biased and meant to be comical. Still, listening to men and women explain on camera their continued support for Donald Trump and their acceptance of his big lies, you will certainly fear that the disregard for facts and obsession with conspiracy theories have reached critical mass, a poisonous development for democracy.

Horace Mann began his career as a lawyer and legislator, but later became known for his devotion to public education.

Now here is the first Horace Mann quote, with its Franklinian echoes: “It may be an easy thing to make a republic; but it is a very laborious thing to make republicans; and woe to the republic that does not rest on better foundations than ignorance, selfishness and passion!”

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I considered that statement as if it were a beautiful painting from the 19th century.

You cannot have a sustainable democracy, Mann argued, without an educated citizenry: voters who were informed and rational, and who acted, if not always selflessly, then at least for the common good.

Mann, who was born in Massachusetts in 1796, became an advocate for public education and later a member of Congress. In 1848, he argued that public schools for all were necessary for democracy to prosper.

Another quote: “The establishment of a republican government, without well endowed and efficient means for the universal education of the people, is the most reckless and reckless experiment ever attempted by man.”

And another: “Such a Republic can grow in number and in wealth. … He may possess every ability and opportunity to be great and to do good. But if such a Republic is devoid of intelligence, it will only become more like an obscene giant who has grown strong in his youth and gone riotous in the strength of him; whose brain has developed only in the region of the appetites and passions, and not in the organs of reason and conscience.”

One more: “Such a Republic, with all its noble charitable capacities, will rush with whirlwind speed to an ignominious end; and all good men of later times would weep at her fall.”

So, like Franklin before him, but with far more words, Mann issued an ominous warning: add, engage, get informed, or lose your democracy. The system will fail, and an ignorant and disengaged citizenry will get what they deserve, probably an authoritarian government that makes all the decisions.

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Defenders of civic education have used Mann’s arguments. They are right to do so, and now more than ever. This is fast becoming an urgent matter. Given the amount of crackpot talk infesting the nation’s political culture, and not just on Comedy Central, but in all public forums, especially those on the right, you get the feeling that too many Americans have no idea how it works. the government or what it does. it does. In that vacuum, it’s easy for people to become suspicious, angry, and even violent.

The National Conference of State Legislatures and other organizations have documented the shortcomings of civic education across the country. Polls have asked Americans some basic questions (identify the three branches of government, for example) and the results have been lackluster.

A few years ago, the League of Women Voters of Maryland conducted a review of civics education in Baltimore and 12 counties and found that social studies specialists had developed a strong curriculum. But there were concerns: a low student pass rate for the US government high school assessment and a lack of civics education before high school. It is not as high a priority as math and science.

Still, at least it’s still taught.

But let’s face it: there are many things that go against even the best foundations of government and democratic principles, a phenomenon that neither Franklin nor Mann could have anticipated. Perhaps it is not more civic education that is needed so much as more critical thinking, more acceptance of agreed facts. The ugly ideas, conspiracy theories, and political misinformation that get into their heads after high school, when people are supposedly older, are the biggest problem.

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