Are America Becoming More Stupid?

Jim, your post seems to answer its own question. As you rightfully conclude that things are overall looking good for Obama’s reelection, then it would be hard to say that America is becoming more conservative in any meaningful way. As I said off-blog, I think America is really just getting less and less educated, particularly about civics (more on that below). When only 2 in 5 Americans can identify the three branches of government and less than half of Americans can name their own congressman, it’s hard to make a case that we have a well informed and involved electorate. And as you point out, the Republican primaries have seen incredibly low turnout. I saw one analysis that showed that in the states that have had contests so far, there were 28 million registered potential voters. And about three million have actually voted. Years ago when I was teaching high school in Sterling, IL, my neighbor, a nice guy who worked for the gas company, never read books–he said the only thing he ever read was Money magazine–said he never voted in primaries, just in the general election. He said it so matter of factly, so confidently, that I was a bit taken aback and didn’t know how to respond. He obviously thought the choice of who he could vote for in that general election was best left to someone else.I don’t believe the country is becoming more conservative. Nor do I believe it is becoming more liberal. It is a very complex thing to figure out and everyone defines those terms the way they want to. And people on both sides can make their case using different surveys and opinion polls. And I think it is a meaningless construct. Our electorate often votes overwhelmingly for one party and then two years later votes overwhelmingly for the other party, as happened in our last two election cycles. The key here is what we call “overwhelmingly.” I’m sure at least 80% of the voters voted for the same party in both elections. It’s not like a majority of the country swings back and forth. The only reason I bring it up is because I get annoyed every few weeks when David Brooks trots out the idea that we are becoming more conservative as an accepted fact that can’t be argued with. It just ain’t so. I’m not sure why he does it. Wish fulfillment, maybe. He cherry picks surveys, cites one and draws conclusions. I was once called naive for doing the same thing.
Your thoughts on education are interesting. I think in general you are on target, and this also is very complicated. It should not be that hard or impossible to educate, on a high school level, everyone in the country on the basic way our government works. I’m sure I am more cynical than you are. I believe that the far right doesn’t want an educated America, because it is far easier to manipulate people who don’t know as much. And the conservatives want lower vote turnout. Over a dozen states have passed laws since the last election making it harder to register and/or vote. All of the laws are aimed at the poor and minorities–who tend to vote for Democrats–and all were passed by Republican state houses. (In most democracies, the fact of being a citizen makes you eligible to vote. We are almost unique in pasting another level of bureaucracy on top to make citizens register to vote. But then, we are also nearly unique in one of our two parties wanting as few voters as possible. Lest you think that an exaggeration, it is not. See, one of the founders of the right wing and a co-founder of the Heritage Foundation, the influential conservative think tank. He was a very influential right wing preacher, who, at this gathering of the Religious Right in 1980 in Dallas, was very open and blunt that he does not want everyone to vote. Some would call that anti-democratic. You can decide for yourself.)
You are right that not everyone can be educated to the same level, and often we may try too hard to make it look like we’re doing that. More and more of our jobs are in the service sector (that in itself a problem), jobs that don’t require a college education. And I see that as a separate issue from having every high school student in America having a basic civics understanding of how their government works.
(An amusing side note on education. Rick Santorum loves to denigrate education. In his stump speeches he often cites a study which showed that of students who entered college with a faith commitment, 67% came out of college four years later having lost that faith commitment. Ergo, education is the enemy of religion. What little Rick didn’t point out was that in the very same study, it was shown that among students who graduated high school with a faith commitment and did not go to college, within four years 72% had lost that faith commitment, stopped going to church, etc. But hey, no one has ever accused Rick of being smart. On the Media did a great report on this. On a side note, Jonathan Turley titled a recent blog post about Santorum “My Crucifix is Bigger than Yours.” Seems the perfect campaign slogan for Rick.)
On civics education, this article seems to give a fairly good history on the subject. This paragraph sums up what I think is the most important point: “Until the late 1960s, formal civic education often comprised up to three courses, usually civics, democracy and government, in addition to U.S. history. A recent study, “The Civic Mission of Schools,” revealed a continuing trend throughout the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s to condense those civic education courses into a single course.”
We have to get back to better learning, and get over thinking there is an easy way, where one course can do the work of three, leaving more time for Facebook and video games. In short, we have to stop amusing ourselves to death (with thanks to Neil Postman.)


About JP

We're two guys who met in college, in 1980. We've stayed in touch, and like to talk politics, current events, music and religion. JP is nore liberal than Sid, but not in every way. We figure that dialogue stimulates ideas, moderates perspective, and is in general friendly. These are things we need badly in these dangerous times. The blog name is taken from a song by Bruce Cockburn.
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