By Dom Nozzi
After reading Morris Berman’s The Twilight of American Culture (2000, 2006), I found myself asking:.
Thomas Jefferson once said that “If we’re going to have a successful democratic society, we have to have a well educated and healthy citizenry.” Along these lines, he also stated that “Whenever the people are well-informed, they can be trusted with their own government.”
How well-informed are American citizens? Are they educated enough to enjoy a successful democracy? To be trusted with their own government?
The following information is cited by Berman’s book:
• 42 percent of American adults cannot locate Japan on a world map. (1997)
• 15 percent of American adults cannot locate the US on a map.
• 10 percent of all American voters, in October 1996, did not know who the Republican and Democratic nominees for president were (one of the questions traditionally asked in psychiatric wards as part of the test for sanity: “Who is the president of the US?”)
• 70 percent of Americans believe in the existence of angels.
• 50 percent of Americans believe in the presence of UFOs and space aliens on earth.
• 30 percent of Americans believe they have made contact with the dead.
• 40 percent of American adults do not know that Germany was our enemy in WWII.
• 58 percent of American high school seniors cannot understand a newspaper editorial in ANY newspaper.
• 50 percent of all students in America were unaware of the Cold War. (1995)
• 60 percent of all students in America had no idea of how the US came into existence. (1995)
• 59 percent of American teenagers cannot name the three branches of the US government, but 59 percent can name the Three Stooges. (1998)
• 98 percent of American teenagers cannot name the chief justice of the Supreme Court. (1998)
• 74 percent of American teenagers cannot name the Vice President of the US. (1998)
• 50 percent of American 17-year olds could not express 9/100 as a percentage. (early 1990s)
• 56 percent of all American adults believe that electrons are larger than atoms. (1995)
• 63 percent of all American adults believe that the earliest humans lived at the same time as dinosaurs (off by more than 60 million years, BTW). (1995)
• 53 percent of all American adults believe the earth revolves around the sun in a day or a month. (1995)
• 21 percent of all American adults believe the sun revolves around the earth. An additional seven percent said they did not know which revolved around which.
• Of the 158 countries in the United Nations, the US ranks 49th in literacy.
• 60 percent of all American adults have never read a single book in their lives. [I checked this shocking number on the Internet and it appears that this should state that 60 percent of all American adults have not read a single book AFTER HIGH SCHOOL.]
• 6 percent of all American adults read as much as a single book in a year.
• Among American readers age 21-35, 67 percent regularly read a daily newspaper in 1965. By 1998, it was 31 percent.
In 1998, the Massachusetts Board of Education instituted a literacy test for teachers, pegged at the level of an exam for a high school equivalency diploma. Of the 1,800 prospective teachers who took it, 59 percent failed. In response, the interim commissioner of education announced that the passing grade would be lowered.
It appears, from the above, that the last thing we should be doing is to “get out the vote.” An essential, unachieved task that Jefferson would urge us to engage in, before we “get out the vote,” is to first educate our population. Uneducated people, it seems likely, would vote against their own interests, or vote for those who are incapable of achieving the objectives of a healthy society.
I think that an important reason why fear is leveraged and used so significantly in America (both for candidates to get votes and to motivate people to buy things) is that Americans are so poorly educated and lazy (and watch too much TV). It is certainly true that in the 1930s, had a lot more people (especially poor people) voted, we would have elected communists and other left-wing items or candidates on the ballot. However, in contemporary times, low-income Americans are much more right wing than then, and would NEVER vote for a communist today (probably due, at least in part, to being a lot better educated in the 1930s).
I agree that education is not the only way to make better decisions. Education makes it more likely, but there is no certainty that this would be the case.
This is especially when it comes to, say, roads. Why? Because high subsidies means that even brilliant people think that wider roads are good.
My position on this issue, though, is that it seems important, if we are to have a healthy democratic society, that we have reasonably educated voters. I think our society is in big trouble if our population remains as ignorant as it is (particularly in comparison to other developed nations, and largely due to our relatively high religiosity and our anti-intellectual attitudes).
The political right in the US hit upon a brilliant political tactic in the Reagan years: get out the religious vote. We now see a lot of lower-income, poorly educated, blue collar people voting for the right wing issues and candidates. Curious, since the Republican agenda is rather openly pro-wealthy people and less supportive of lower-income people. In my view, this is at least partly because many lower-income folks are now single-issue voters: they use a narrow religious litmus test. It has been said that blue collar Catholics were largely responsible for electing Reagan and the Bushes (it is no coincidence that Reagan, in particular, nominated an enormous number of Catholics to top government posts).
In the book, Berman notes chilling parallels between the time at which the Roman Empire fell, and the US today. In both cases, there is extreme economic disparity between rich and poor. The middle class was significantly shrunk in size. The cost of bureaucracy and the military had become so enormous that in both cases, the government teeters on bankruptcy. Literacy and classical knowledge was replaced by a kind of New Age thinking (in the case of Rome, the classical knowledge lost was Greek learning, in the case of the US, the disparagement of learning from “dead white guys”).
Berman is nearly certain the US empire will collapse before the 22nd Century, and like monasteries that sheltered and bridged classical knowledge during the Dark Ages to protect it for future generations, he calls for a secular “monastic option” for contemporary times so that today’s storehouse of knowledge is protected from the coming decline into barbarism.