A Civil Right and a Civil Responsibility

From Newsweek — March 21, 2011:

“How Dumb Are We?” by Andrew Romano

Tina Brown of New Yorker and Daily Beast editorial fame is now making her provocative imprint felt on the “new” Newsweek, evidenced here by summary findings in asking our fellow citizens no more than what we ask aspiring citizens.  Since my wife helps prepare many of these aspiring citizens for the same test where the stakes are slightly higher, I have some modest insight into the scope and depth of empathy here.  In the Newsweek test given to 1000 already-Americans, apparently 38% failed.

Click through and take a look at the test before you jump to the conclusion that it is just a dose of unimportant trivial pursuit.  We have to take a basic written test to get a driver’s license, but our sacred one-person one-vote widely evangelized model for democracy comes with only an age restriction.  If you can buy a six-pack of beer at the corner grocery store, even if you can’t calculate the tax in your head, you can vote.

Does this matter?  Methinks it does.  Putting aside the issue of education’s role in bettering newly arrived and long-term citizen’s quality of life as it can apply to the job force, what about the quality of the dialogue (and yes, argument) we need to share with each other to assign executive, legislative, and judicial power to individuals to collectively make the decisions on our behalf that position our nation for solving its current problems, preventing its future conflicts, and making us proud on the world stage.  How can we possibly do our civic duty of discussion and debate if we don’t have any sort of level playing field of knowledge?  We all have to somehow evidence we know the rules of the road to shift out of reverse, at least most of them, but we don’t have to evidence anything to have an opinion on public policy, it shall remain in perpetuity by our Constitution an inalienable right.

So why one set of rules for those already in the club and one for those who so desperately want to join the club?  Are we perhaps asking too much of the newbies, is the test somehow a set of trick questions meant to create a litmus test of seriousness of intent or a number controlling hurdle?  Is it perfunctory?  Or is there wisdom in making people proud of achieving a shared platform of understanding before we welcome them to the permanent pride of  this fragile experiment we call democracy?

If the conclusion one draws from my commentary here is that already-Americans should have to pass the same test to vote, that would hardly be my thinking, that is settled law.  Equally I would not want to eliminate the test for new citizens, because I have personally observed their joy in passing this test and their newfound hope and faith in a future that begins with the reward.

What I am suggesting is that if we don’t start demanding broad, honest, serious, fact-based and critical thinking models of education for every single human being as an absolute, then we’ll get what we’ll get.  We’ll keep fighting with each other, we’ll let Congress keep fighting with each other (the wrestlers change costumes but the steel cage death match remains Groundhog Day), and we’ll keep making mistakes until one day we make one that is just too serious, and our relevancy on the planet will be reversed.

We need to get very, very pissed off.  Each of our votes is one, it counts the same.  We have to have faith that everyone around us has some shared basis of decision-making or our own contribution no longer works.  One generation ago our public education was the envy of the world, we were #1 because we made it a national priority.  Today depending on you who you ask, we are #17.  Is that okay for a nation that by decree gives all power to the people?

Education is not a luxury item, it is not an option, it comes with the territory of democracy.  Without education, we will destroy the environment, the whole landscape be it cash green or forest green, literally and spiritually, and there won’t be a subsequent generation with the resources to fix it.

If we can afford doctors and lawyers and bankers and movie stars, we can afford teachers and schools and educational tools provided in a setting of peace and safety.  If we don’t think that’s important and want to leave anecdotes about ignorance to the late night comedians and midday pundits, we get what we get.  I just can’t believe on a scale of goals and priorities that an uneducated populous is what any already educated individual would find acceptable and sustainable.


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