Citizens Benighted?

Why are we surprised that our nation doesn’t function? Or that we’re so divided politically — unable to talk to one another? Or that our children don’t vote or volunteer for civic causes when we don’t even teach them to do so?

Today, when 80% of us don’t trust our own government, we must ask ourselves how many of us even understand how our government works or what our own critical role is in sustaining a vibrant democracy.

In 1956 when I was a sixth grader in Morrisville, we had a civics course taught by Mr. Dodge that grounded us in a rudimentary understanding of how local, state, and federal government worked. The course also instilled in us an understanding of our obligation to participate, vote, and serve in various civic functions.

In our school, family, church, and community, it was borne in on us by lesson and example that we each had an obligation to participate in and contribute to community, either in direct service and, if we could, by giving money. As adults, we were expected to serve on community organizations: select, school, and library boards, cemetery commissions, church and charitable organizations. Some might run for state or federal office. We often heard the then-prevalent phrase, though only to boys, “You could be President of the United States!”

If we are to secure our increasingly fragile democracy, it’s time to require civics courses again and to introduce media literacy in our public-school curriculum. A democracy depends on its citizens understanding how their government works, their role in sustaining it by voting and also serving as needed in various elected or appointed roles.

In yet another signal that citizens are no longer the engine of democracy, we’ve dropped compulsory military service and have no apparent plans to initiate a non-military national service.

On the encouraging side, the pandemic and resultant division has led to a modest improvement in Americans’ understanding of the architecture of their government. In 2020, over half of Americans (51%) were able to name all three branches of government, an improvement over earlier survey results which indicated that three- quarters of Americans couldn’t; one-third couldn’t even name one branch of government. An electorate that condemns its own government without understanding its functions and purpose or doesn’t step up to assume civic responsibilities can hardly be counted on for informed participation, voting, or advocacy.

In the most recent presidential election, there was a significant uptick in the number of young people (18-25) voting (53%). In the 2016 election, however, less than half the number (45%) of eligible young voters went to the polls.

We Americans hate mandates.  But in Australia, voter registration and participation are required by law and some 96 percent of eligible Australians are enrolled to vote. Of those, more than 90 percent typically turn out to cast ballots in a federal election, far more than the 55 percent of eligible Americans who participated in the 2016 presidential election.

It’s also past time to teach our children how to understand and evaluate the myriad sources of reliable information and misinformation available to them. If current political events have taught us anything, it’s how vulnerable we all are now to misinformation, innuendo, “influencers” (clickbait), and propaganda.

In an earlier Digger column, I suggested making media literacy a required curriculum element beginning no later than high school. Informed citizens know the difference between reliable journalism and opinion/blogs, as well as how to fact-check and find trusted sources. Media literacy can also help young and old identify social media misinformation, hype, and propaganda.

When I was young, we got our news either from trusted national sources like Walter Cronkite, Edward R. Murrow, or Huntley-Brinkley or from Vermont’s WDEV or our local paper The News and Citizen. We could trust these reliable sources, although asking questions rather than taking things on faith was a habit ingrained in most of us. These sources formed the basis of how we thought about world, state, and local affairs, and we were expected in school and at the dinner table to be able to discuss “current events.”

Today’s young people are facile users of social media, but they and too many of their elders are dangerously ignorant about the consequences of using it unquestioningly. Cyber-bullying, revenge porn, paid influencers, stalking, clickbait, and fake news are all dangerous consequences of our naivete and the lack of regulation of social media. There is a steep price to pay for being on Facebook and other platforms and not paying sufficient attention to privacy and its importance in a world of relentless and malfeasant hacking, exploitation, and misinformation.

The News Literacy Project urges readers to ask the basic question: “What is the primary objective of the information being provided?”

  • News: Informs us through objective reporting, about local, national, and international events, issues, and people of significance or of interest.
  • Opinion: Persuades us, ideally using fact-based evidence, to adopt a specific point of view about an issue or event.
  • Advertising: Sells us a product or service.
  • Entertainment: Amuses, pleases, relaxes, or distracts us.
  • Propaganda: Provokes us — often by using false or distorted information to manipulate our emotions.
  • Raw information: Documents an event or trend but has not been analyzed, checked, edited, explained, or placed in any context.

There are many corrosive elements weakening our democracy: corruption, equating money with free speech (Citizens United), voting restrictions. But our own basic ignorance of government’s purpose and function and our inability to differentiate fact from political propaganda could sound our democracy’s death knell.

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