Social Studies Opinion

Updating Mr. Jefferson: An Education for Today’s Democracy

By Marc Tucker — December 17, 2015 6 min read
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“An educated citizenry is a vital requisite for our survival as a free people.”

So said Thomas Jefferson at the dawn of the Republic. But what might it mean to have an educated citizenry today?

I’ve read the polls showing that a large proportion of adults do not know who their representatives to Congress are, how a bill becomes a law, and other key facts concerning our democratic political system. We clearly need to do a better job teaching civics. But that is not what Jefferson was talking about. He was envisioning the voters deciding among candidates for public office on the basis of the solutions they offered for the challenges of the day.

In Jefferson’s time, only propertied men had the vote. Most Americans did not. The assumption was that only propertied men knew enough and had enough sober judgment to decide the future of the country. Now, at least in theory, the franchise has been extended to all adult citizens without a criminal record. It is not clear what assumptions we are making about the capacity of our citizens to make intelligent decisions as to who will represent them. But I see no reason to challenge Jefferson’s assumption that our country is in trouble if the people voting for the individuals who make the laws know very little about the issues their representatives will have to decide.

What would voters have to know to be able to make intelligent, well-informed choices among the proposals made by the current crop of presidential candidates, for example? How might our answers compare to what they would have been when Jefferson was president? What are the implications for our schools?

Consider what it would take to decide whether the president and Secretary Kerry are right in saying that the pact they negotiated with Iran on nuclear weapons is a good deal, as they claim, or a bad deal, as the Republicans claim. What would our model citizen have to know to decide whether it is true that it would take at least a year for the Iranians to build a bomb from the time they were caught violating the treaty? To decide whether the Iranians could cheat and go undetected? To decide whether it is possible for us or the Israelis to destroy the Iranians’ nuclear facilities or not? To weigh the likelihood that the funds we would release as a condition of signing the treaty would be used, as the critics charge, to funds terrorists around the world or to turn the Iranian economy around, as the advocates of the treaty predict?

Consider what our model citizen would have to know to make intelligent choices between the parties on climate change issues. What is the likelihood that a 2 percent increase in the average temperature of the earth would cause world ocean levels to rise 20 feet or more? What could be done to prevent such a thing without devastating the global economy? What is the significance of the finding that Greenland’s glaciers are melting not just on their tops but also on their bottoms? Is it true that this means that they could just slip off the land and go out to sea to melt much faster than had earlier been thought likely? Is it true, as the advocates say, that hydrogen-based fuels could greatly reduce carbon pollution, or would it take so much natural gas to create those fuels that there would be no net improvement in the carbon load? Should we be investing far more in controlled nuclear fusion or is this solution no closer now than it was 50 years ago? Is regulation from Washington the cause of the economic decline of our coal-producing regions (the “war on coal”) or is the decline really the result of the decline in the price of natural gas?

Is it true that the best hope for accelerating the pace of economic growth in the United States is greatly lowering taxes and eliminating most of the regulation of business and industry? Would those policies increase the size of our economy so much that tax collections would actually rise, as the advocates maintain, or would they simply increase our debt so much that our economy would slow down even further, as their opponents claim? Does it make sense to distinguish between “investments” and “consumption” in the national budget and spend on the former and cut back on the latter, as some maintain, or does it make more sense to do what we expect families to do when money is tight and simply reduce expenditures and cut back on debt as much as possible? What sort of evidence would help you decide which of these alternatives make more sense?

I have no doubt that Mr. Jefferson’s world looked very complex to the voters who had to make decisions about the issues of that time. But I am equally certain that today’s world is far more complex, both with respect to each issue that must be decided, but also with respect to the connections among those issues. The handful of issues I just used to make my point is just the tip of the iceberg.

As I see it, the election now underway is truly frightening, precisely because it would appear that, for many people, what really matters is how they feel and not what they think. Anger is trumping thought (no pun intended). I find myself more or less obsessed by the thought that a very large fraction of the American electorate has no more than a 7th or 8th grade level of literacy, has very little understanding of basic science, knows almost nothing of the history and politics of the Middle East or Asia, does not know algebra, has never had any statistics or probability, and has never taken a course in economics.

What, do you suppose, would Mr. Jefferson think about the future of democracy if that were the case? I have spent much of my life making the argument that the dynamics of global economic change have produced a powerful imperative for greatly raising the standards for American education. But I find that an analysis of the challenges our policymakers must now face now leads me to exactly the same conclusion with respect to the educational demands of citizenship.

I was asked recently to say something about what young people need from their schooling. What the question first brought to mind was the enormous problems the human community now faces. We are not wired to deal with those problems, nor are we equipped by the education most of us get to deal with them either.

We are wired for survival on the Savannah. Most of our brain is devoted to image processing, so we can make an instant threat assessment in the light of what we see and decide whether to fight or flee. Part of that assessment is the decision as to whether the other humans in our line of sight are friend of foe. Get that one wrong and you might be dead moments later. Not much time for reflection or analysis. Or fine distinctions. Or negotiation. Friend is my family and extended family. Everyone else is “them.” Back in those good old days, most battles involved not more than a dozen people on each side and the weapons of choice were stones. There was a limit to how much damage we could do to each other or the Earth that nurtured us. Since then, many things have changed, but our genetic makeup is not among them.

We humans are very poorly prepared for the world as it is today. If genetics cannot prepare us for the world as it is, education will have to make up the difference.

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