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Our Youth Must Receive A Civic Education

By Reed Anfinson
Swift County Monitor-News
Growing Growing up with a limited number of televisions and radio programs, we relied mostly on the information provided in magazines and newspapers for our knowledge of the world, national and local affairs. While television and radio could provide headlines, it was print that gave stories depth. It was a simple, straightforward time. For the most part, we trusted the news we were getting. How times have changed!

With the internet and the unchecked fire hose of information it delivers, the expansion of TV news stations, and the satellite talk-radio programs, the news environment today is vastly more complex. It is also polluted with highly partisan shows, intentional disinformation campaigns, and conspiracy theories.

How do young people today sort fact from fiction, fake news from trusted reporting, doctored photographs, and video from real life? What are our high schools and colleges doing to ensure that students go to the polls with an educated awareness of the issues and candidates rather than an indoctrinated, emotion-driven agenda?

“Civic education is essential to sustain our constitutional democracy. The habits of the mind, as well as ‘habits of the heart,’ the dispositions that inform the democratic ethos, are not inherited,” Alexis de Tocqueville, wrote in “Democracy in America.” The book was based on his travels through the United States in the early 1830s. He was a French historian observing the American experiment with representative democracy.

 “Each new generation is a new people that must acquire the knowledge, learn the skills, and develop the dispositions or traits of private and public character that undergird a constitutional democracy,” Margaret S. Branson wrote of de Tocqueville’s observations in her piece titled The Role of Civic Education in American Democracy.

 “Those dispositions must be fostered and nurtured by word and study and by the power of example. Democracy is not a ‘machine that would go of itself,’ but must be consciously reproduced, one generation after another,” she wrote of de Tocqueville’s observations.

Lee Hamilton, a member of the U.S. House for 34 years and a senior advisor for the Indiana University Center on Representative Government, writing nearly 190 years later made a similar observation.

“American democracy makes a wager on each citizen,” he wrote. “The deal is simple: with freedom comes obligation, with liberty comes duty. If you and I do not fulfill our side of that wager, our democracy is doomed. You and I must also ensure that our children are equipped to fulfill the deal themselves. They are the future of democracy. We must give them both the passion and competence to be effective. If we become a nation of spectators, we will surely fail.”

Hamilton’s observation implies these citizen spectators will be uninvolved, sitting on the sidelines of American politics at the national, state, and local levels. There is a greater danger, however. Citizen spectators filled with false, divisive, and emotionally charged information can be motivated to go to the polls at the bidding of those who may not believe in our democratic values.

The disinformation campaigns run by Russia during the 2016 election were simply a warm-up for what we will see as we head into the 2020 presidential election. Russia will be joined by China, Iran, and other nations using even more sophisticated deep-fake technology. They will produce videos so real, literally putting words into people’s mouths they never spoke, to discredit and embarrass them. They will create uncertainty in the minds of voters as well as stoke the flames of racism and religious prejudice.

Those young people already following our political leaders see disfunction, outright lying, self-interest, tribalism, and party over country as the discouraging elements of our representative government. To navigate today’s information environment, one needs a guide and must be armed with the knowledge that allows them to discern the truth among the wasteland of disinformation.

A more difficult task may be opening minds to different points of view from those with which they were formed. 

“Every now and then a man’s mind is stretched by a new idea or sensation, and never shrinks back to its former dimensions,” Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., wrote in his Autocrat of the Breakfast Table. For the mind to be stretched, it must first be open to words that challenge its firmly held beliefs.

Parents play an essential role as well in teaching their children the responsibilities of citizenship. We despair a little here based on what we see from parents whose political beliefs are rigidly, tribally fixed in place.

When we are open to different points of view, we are open to compromise. Our nation requires compromise to be representative of society as a whole.

The best assurance of the continued vitality of our citizen government is to ensure civic education is the bedrock of our children’s education, Hamilton says. “Civic engagement must begin in the classroom. The key to democracy’s continued success is to place civics on a par with math, science and English. Civics must be taught systematically, at every grade level, as a core component of the curriculum. Only if we put a premium on civic education is it fair to expect our citizens to be engaged participants in their own governance.”

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