Like so many others, I am watching the presidential campaign unfold with a gathering sense of dread. Thomas Jefferson famously told us that “if a nation expects to be ignorant and free in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.” For more than two centuries, we have pinned our hopes on our faith that an educated citizenry will, more often than not, do the right thing.
But now it appears that on the order of 40 percent of the citizenry is not interested in the facts or expert analysis based on the facts, and it is eager to elect to the highest office in the land a man whose contempt for the facts, for reasoning, and for the U.S. Constitution is obvious. How did this happen in a country that practically invented mass education?
I have argued in my Education Week blog, Top Performers, that this is due, in part, to the policies of experts, which have profoundly hurt poorly educated people who can no longer compete in what has become a global market for labor—or against intelligent machines doing the same work, only now faster and cheaper. They are understandably angry with both the experts and their facts. But now it seems that these voters’ distrust of expertise, the facts, and even reasoning itself was intentionally fueled.
In July, the New York Times journalist James Poniewozik argued in “Roger Ailes Fused TV With Politics, Changing Both” that Donald Trump’s rise was made possible by a very deliberate and sophisticated effort to produce exactly that result in a propaganda campaign designed to make the Fox News Channel very rich and Ailes the Republican kingmaker. And, in the process, to subvert the kind of democracy Thomas Jefferson had in mind.
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Before Ailes’ reign over Fox News, the general tone for TV news had been set by the likes of Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite—sober, objective, fact-based, analytical, middle-of-the-road, and responsible. Ailes threw out the rules. The other news outlets were declared to be left-leaning and biased. Fox would introduce “balance” by presenting only conservative voices. Fox News was designed to gain an audience by nurturing “resentment politics,” crafted for an audience of people who grew to feel that they were being left behind by the elites.
To make this model work, Poniewozik explains, the sense of grievance that was key to the model had to be constantly stoked: Whatever the viewer once held that made him or her “great"—religion, race, values, work—was being hijacked by “them.” Only Fox knew what was going on; only Fox understood you; only Fox News could be trusted to tell it like it really is.
None of this was done casually. Ailes’ team dreamed up these grievances, but only presented them on the news once they had been carefully field-tested with their audience, so they knew they would work. This is how “anchor babies,” “birtherism,” and “Ground Zero mosque” came into the public square, Poniewozik points out.
The facts were irrelevant. The facts, and the experts who offered them, were tools used by “the other side” to fool people. What mattered were emotions and the art of playing on people’s emotions. A firewall was built against the facts, against analysis, against expertise.
Our students need to develop a respect for the facts, for empiricism, for reasoned argument, and for one another."
Enter Donald Trump onto this carefully prepared ground. Thomas Jefferson’s worst fear personified: loud, angry, ignorant, and perfectly attuned to the fears and grievances that had been so carefully identified and nurtured. And yet, this should never have happened. This is exactly what mass education was supposed to inoculate us against.
What went wrong?
I submit that there is no more important function of American education than to give students the tools they need to preserve democracy and the freedoms and liberty with which we are blessed. How do we do that? It may be difficult, but it is not complicated. Our students need to understand the origins of freedom, liberty, and constitutional government from their beginnings in ancient Greece, to their revival in the Scottish enlightenment, to their expression in the cauldron of the American Revolution. Our students need to understand how fragile democracy is, and they need to study how freedom, democracy, and constitutional government were undermined in the interwar years in Weimar Germany. They need to know how our government was designed to work, and how various forces over the years have compromised that design and have reversed it.
But, at the root of it all, our students need to develop a respect for the facts, for empiricism, for reasoned argument, and for one another. There is no doubt: Roger Ailes should have been brought down because of the appalling way he reportedly treated women at Fox News. But what price should he pay for paving the way for Donald Trump, for deliberately creating an electorate that deeply distrusts the facts and anyone who has expertise, for creating a world in which voters are willing to suspend reason in favor of turning their lives over to people whose expertise consists entirely of knowing how to press their emotional buttons?
I hope American educators will seize the opportunity to ask themselves what went wrong here and to consider what changes need to be made in the curriculum and how it is taught in order to develop a citizenry that is not so easily led by emotion rather than clear thinking. Ailes may be gone, but Fox management has announced that the Fox News formula will continue. American educators should be working overtime to make it a whole lot harder for that formula to succeed.
A version of this article appeared in the September 21, 2016 edition of Education Week as Truth, Education, And the American Voter