“Whenever the people are well informed,” Thomas Jefferson once wrote, “they can be trusted with their own government.”
If that’s right, says Clarence Page, then we’re in trouble.
In a recent Chicago Tribune column, Page highlights some of his concerns:
- Less than one in four of us can list all five freedoms guaranteed by the First Amendment (freedom of speech, religion, press, assembly and petition for redress of grievances) but more than half can rattle off at least two characters from the Simpsons.
- Almost half of all Americans believe that the president can suspend the Constitution whenever it suits.
- According to a recent Time magazine survey, 25% of Americans incorrectly believe that President Obama is a Muslim.
- The percentage who correctly say President Obama is a Christian is at 34%, down from 48% last March.
- A majority of us still believe that there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.
- Page cites research suggesting that 20% Americans don’t know that there are 100 senators.
- Only two in five can correctly name all three branches of government.
Have we always been this stupid?
According to Rick Shenkman, an associate professor of history at George Mason University, probably not. But in his 2008 book, Just How Stupid Are We? Facing the Truth About the American Voter, Shenkman suggests that the stupidity pace is accelerating.
He argues that American voters have become increasingly ignorant of politics and world affairs and are susceptible to political manipulation. Shenkman claims that we are incapable of critically understanding the subtleties of both domestic and international issues. So voters often lack the knowledge and ability to participate effectively in the political process and are often mislead into voting for leaders who are not in line with national or local interests. Part of his argument is that we also lack strong media literacy skills – thus ensuring that whatever happens to come across the blogosphere and twitterverse or arrives via text message is taken as absolute gospel.
In a conversation with Page, Shenkman said
people follow the news so loosely that they are susceptible to any wild idea.
Shenkman’s not the only one to suggest that new media is changing how and what we believe. In a February Miami Herald column, Leonard Pitts writes
To listen to talk radio, to watch TV pundits, to read a newspaper’s online message board, is to realize that increasingly, we are a people estranged from critical thinking, divorced from logic, alienated from even objective truth. We admit no ideas that do not confirm us, hear no voices that do not echo us, sift out all information that does not validate what we wish to believe.
Farhad Moojan argues for exactly the same thing is his book, “True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society.”
In True Enough, Manjoo basically says that Web 2.0 communication tools makes it easier for us to lie and harder for others to know the difference.
. . . when we strung up the planet in fiber-optic cable, when we dissolved the mainstream media into prickly niches and when each of use began to create and transmit our own pictures and sounds, we eased the path through which propaganda infects the culture.
So perhaps the question we should be asking is not are we stupid, but why are we stupid?
Lots of people, myself included, have been pushing for more “wisdom of crowd” types of tools – blogs and wikis and Ning sites and Plurk, for example. Manjoo calls these sorts of tools the “infosphere.” The concept being that the more we can share ideas, we all become smarter. I still accept that.
But I’m also starting to accept the fact that it can work the other way as well – that the more we can share ideas, the possibility exists that we can also become . . . well . . . more stupid. The infosphere pushes incorrect ideas just as easily as it pushes good ones.
And right now, I’m not sure if there’s a clean and easy solution. At the same time that Manjoo’s infosphere is becoming a stronger and stronger influence on how potential voters view the world, future voters are getting less and less instruction on the basics of citizenship.
States are de-emphasizing the testing of social studies and thus the importance of social studies as a part of instruction. K-8 buildings are reducing the amount of time spent on teaching social studies. And I know that many who do teach social studies often don’t have the background and qualifications to actually do it.
But I also know that we need to continue to advocate for strong social studies instruction. The recent issue of The Social Studies Professional offers a nice list of ways that we can use to support social studies on a variety of fronts.
We also need to be more accountable in our own classes to
- teach media literacy
- ask kids to think critically
- solve realistic problems
- encourage actual discussion skills besides simply talking louder
- develop a wide variety of information sources
So why is this such a big deal? Page ends with
When the elections are close, the deciding votes usually come from the least informed, least-engaged and most emotionally driven voters.
Heaven help us.
Heaven help us, indeed.