By Keshav Poddar, Contributing Columnist
Published on Friday, November 5, 2010
Upon exiting the polls at Hanover High School on Tuesday, a friend turned to me and said, “There’s something really wrong about what just happened.” I was a bit confused — all we had done was exercise our civic duty to vote. She proceeded to explain to me that she knew only the most cursory and obvious details about American politics, and that her understanding of the substantive distinctions between Republicans and Democrats was murky at best. Her point was that democracy sounds great in theory, but when the common voter lacks a grasp of basic civics, the entire premise of popular rule is undermined. This got me wondering: how many citizens went to the polls this week lacking the fundamental knowledge necessary to make informed political decisions?
Centuries ago, the founding fathers acknowledged that the survival of the nascent republic rested upon the ability of the public to be informed to the extent that they could make intelligent political decisions. Thomas Jefferson stated: “Whenever the people are well-informed, they can be trusted with their own government.” I suspect that he would be mortified by a 2007 Pew Research survey, which concluded that one half of Americans would fail a basic test of civic and current events literacy. Unfortunately, this group includes the most educated in society — college graduates. A 2009 report issued by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute found that “only 24 percent of college graduates know the First Amendment prohibits establishing an official religion for the United States.” Given the paramount importance of the First Amendment, this result is deeply troubling. What is responsible for this tremendous failure?
As it turns out, the answer is not entertainment television. The same Pew survey found that the Americans most in tune with political events and the structure of government are those who read major daily newspapers, and those who watch Comedy Central’s The Daily Show and The Colbert Report. Such a poll cannot prove causation, however, the fact remains that major broadcast and cable television networks — from which the majority of Americans get their news — rated far behind the other sources. The highly popular Fox News Channel ranked in virtually last place, and CNN only did slightly better. The ISI study goes further, saying that “monitoring television news broadcasts and documentaries diminish a respondent’s civic literacy.” If the act of watching broadcast and cable news actually makes us less knowledgeable, then the most ubiquitous mainstream media sources have utterly failed to educate us as citizens.
This vacuum of knowledge in our society undoubtedly played a role in these congressional midterm elections. Can any voter pass substantive judgment on the efficacy of the Obama administration without anything more than a perfunctory understanding of health care reform or the stimulus bill? Did a substantial percentage of voters fail to see a contradiction in rhetoric that simultaneously called for significant structural tax cuts, the elimination of the budget deficit, and the preservation of Medicare? The dearth of civic literacy creates a destructive atmosphere where a lack of understanding on the part of American citizens and students, coupled with the misinformation of the media elite, mutually contribute to a pathetic political dialogue.
On a local level, Dartmouth could require some sort of civics class as part of distributive requirements (perhaps with a placement test to provide the opportunity to opt out). On a national level, the problem could be addressed by mandating a universal curriculum of civics education in American schools. Any such civics curriculum, whether it is used in colleges or high schools, would have to be presented without even a whiff of partisanship. Even so, the need for a renewed emphasis on civic literacy in American society is dire, or our government and media will only slide further and further into dysfunction. Until action is taken on this matter, we may all just have to stick with Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert.