Part 2: Fixing The Problem
Essay 22 – Educating the People
“No people will tamely surrender their Liberties, nor can any be easily subdued, when knowledge is diffused and Virtue is preserved. On the Contrary, when People are universally ignorant, and debauched in their Manners, they will sink under their own weight without the Aid of foreign Invaders.”
– Samuel Adams, letter to James Warren, November 4, 1775
A well-informed electorate is essential to sustaining self-governance. How can we possibly expect people to make good decisions as to who to vote for a particular position, if they do not even understand what the actual role of that position is in our system of government?
We can’t. It defies all reason.
Yet, that’s exactly what we’ve been doing for decades, increasingly so. And it shows. The quality of our elected officials is in direct relation to the quality of our informed electorate (or uninformed, as it were).
The founders understood that our self-governing Republic would require virtuous people to hold office, and electing virtuous people would require that the people voting would need to maintain a high regard to civic virtues.
What is meant by “civic virtues”?
Because the people are sovereign in our unique (exceptional) system of self-government, it requires the people to have certain basic duties and responsibilities in order for that to work. These duties and responsibilities are what we’re talking about with the concept of civic virtues.
The most basic civic virtue is that the people should take the time to learn and fully understand the system of government that we have created and the principles it is based on. Without that basic knowledge, it’s simply not possible to make an informed decision on any issue or on any candidate.
The essays in Part 1: What’s So Great About Our Constitution, Anyway? attempt to provide the reader with this basic understanding of our system of government and the principles it is based on.
But civic virtue does not stop there…that is just the foundation.
Citizens are then expected to be engaged in civil discourse, to be informed about the basics of current issues and events, to be involved in their community activities and organizations, to civilly and respectfully discuss and debate issues with other citizens, to listen to and research candidates for office, to let elected officials know their thoughts, ideas, and positions, and to participate in the election process as a regular, informed voter.
Our biggest problem today is that the electorate in general lacks these civic virtues. About 40% of eligible people never participate at all, not even voting (60% for non-presidential elections). Many others ignore all of the other virtues and just come out and vote on election day, fully believing they are fulfilling their responsible civic duty.
By ignoring civic virtues, we open up the opportunity for corrupt and dishonest politicians, political parties, and their cronies to manipulate the electoral process as well as the scope and functions of government itself. Rather than virtuous candidates for office, we are presented with demagogues – those who will persuade uninformed people by appealing to their fears and biases, and stoke the flames of current popular passions.
Does this sound familiar when considering our current politicians?
It seems fairly evident that an electorate made up of a majority of uninformed people will lead to disastrous results. With that in mind, is it a good idea to encourage everyone to get out and vote on election day? I cringe every time I hear someone pleading and encouraging others to get out and vote. On the surface, most people think this is a good thing. After all, voting is a fundamental right of citizenship and everyone should participate, right? In theory, yes.
But voting is the culmination of civic virtue, not the start of it. Voting, without engaging in the other civic virtues, is irresponsible. In my opinion, if you don’t know the basics of our system of government and the principles behind it, and are not informed of the basics of current events and issues, and have not done basic research on the candidates, then you have no business voting.
Further, anyone who has been a part of these other civic virtues, would need no encouragement or reminders to get out and vote. Therefore, anyone that needs encouragement or reminders to vote are probably the very people that should not be voting. The implications are too important and affect way too many people to encourage uninformed people to vote.
Instead, I would urge to encourage them to get involved, to learn, to become engaged citizens with good, strong civic virtues. Once that is done, they will be anxious to vote and will not need any encouragement.
How to fix it…
This, of course, is the big question. How do we educate the people and instill these civic virtues?
Some believe that the solution is to require that all high school students take specific civics classes before graduation, or are required to pass the same civics test that immigrants have to take in order to become citizens. However, I don’t think the answer is to have our government-run, public schools be responsible for educating our children on these issues. There are too many political motivations and biases involved.
Liberty requires that we allow differing ideas and opinions and interpretations of things to exist. This means that we will never all agree on one, proper way to view the principles we’ve discussed, and the Constitution that came from them, and the form, purpose, structure, and scope of government. We need to allow for the free exchange of ideas in this area. Therefore, a government instituted and controlled program of instruction on these topics is not the answer.
I believe this responsibility lies with the people, completely outside of the government realm. Let’s face it, the natural tendency of an entity, especially when controlled by human nature, is for self-preservation and to grow bigger and more powerful. Therefore, it would be against the government’s (and those who work within it) self-interest to fully and effectively inform and educate the people about the principles of limited government with limited powers.
For example, would the Department of Education work to include a civics curriculum that might suggest that the separation of powers, the concept of federalism, and limited, enumerated powers at the federal level may actually mean that there shouldn’t even be a Department of Education at the federal level? Do you see the problem?
This needs to be a grassroots effort of the people. Of course, this is the very thought process that instigated the writing of these essays. The more that we can spread this information…the more people that we have out there that can articulate these sound principles and explain to others how the system is supposed to work and why, the closer we will be to actually fixing things.
About this series:
The People Are Sovereign! is a series of 30 essays that will be posted on a daily basis. The series will continue tomorrow with Essay 23 – The Key Is Federalism
To view the previous essay in the series, click this link: Essay 21- Equality
To view the next essay in the series, click this link: Essay 23- The Key Is Federalism