History, Cut to Fit

I have often used this blog to complain that Americans know very little about our country’s history and governing structures–not to mention science and economics. A couple of days ago, a friend shared an exchange that once again underscored the point.

One of my friend’s high-school classmates had responded to a Facebook post in which he had saluted Lilly Company’s support for Freedom Indiana, the group formed to fight the effort to constitutionalize Indiana’s existing ban on same-sex marriage. The classmate wrote:
 ”The Constitution is inscribed to articulate inalienable rights we already have by virtue of the Creator. It is not an instrument whereby we are given grant ourselves wishes, no matter how well-intentioned they may be; no matter how noble they may sound.”
Grammatical errors aside, this construction pretty much stands history on its head. As my friend responded:
“What you’re describing here is a theocracy. Because we live in a nation with people of many faiths and people with none, I’m glad we don’t govern ourselves that way. Also, the term “inalienable rights” is from the Declaration of Independence, not the U.S. Constitution. There is no mention of God, Creator, etc. in the U.S. Constitution or the Bill of Rights (except to say “the year of our Lord” near the signatures). Even if you want to talk “inalienable rights” with regard to HJR-6 in Indiana, two of those articulated in the Declaration of Independence are “liberty” and “the pursuit of happiness.” I would suggest that by banning marriage for a subset of our fellow citizens, HJR-6 tramps on both of those “inalienable rights.”
My friend shared this exchange as confirmation that our concerns about widespread civic ignorance are valid. It certainly provides anecdotal confirmation of that concern. But it also raises some disquieting questions.
Would his high-school classmate see the world differently if he understood the history of America’s constituent documents? If he were familiar with Enlightenment philosophy, the writings of Hobbes and John Locke, the separationist beliefs of early religious figures like John Leland or Roger Williams? Or would he stubbornly “cherry pick” history and philosophy to make them conform to his own worldview? After all, it is enormously tempting to sift through biblical and constitutional texts to find support for our own prejudices, and right wing religious literalists aren’t the only people who do so.
Would we be able to communicate with each other more effectively if we shared a common understanding of the system we inherited–if we occupied the same reality? Or are we all so emotionally invested in our personal belief systems that we lack the openness required for genuine communication?
I have used my columns and blog to hammer at the importance of civic literacy, and I have warned of the dangers posed by our “civic deficit.” The establishment of a Center for Civic Literacy at IUPUI was based upon a belief that better civic education will provide us with a common language that will facilitate better communication, that better communication will lead to better policymaking, and that a common understanding of our roots will help ameliorate our toxic politics.
This exchange  between my civically savvy friend and his old high-school classmate reminded me that my premise could well be wrong. It may be that our very human desire to confirm our prejudices– and to deny inconvenient facts that are inconsistent with those prejudices–will always trump evidence contrary to our preferred realities.
Does education matter? Does it make a difference? We have to hope so.

5 thoughts on “History, Cut to Fit

  1. Education does matter. Babies are born knowing nothing yet after 18 years they vote. A college education, especially one that has a base in liberal arts and science, exposes one to many ideas and some of them conflict. Perhaps what is best learned in college is the process of continuous research and thinking through the issues that confront us in our lives and work. Still a person has to be able to change his or her mind and not shunt inconvenient facts to the waste bin. You do not state whether the example you cite is from Indiana. I remain appalled at the low percentage of Indiana residents with a college education.

  2. The high cost of higher education in this state prevents many from getting college educations. There is also the onus of joblessness and the current financial situation adding to that deterrent. We have the GOP, Tea Party, NRA – with The Donald as poster boy for some of them – cramming their VERSION of religion down our throats by enacting laws preventing civil and human rights for tax paying residents. This is their version of the Declaration of Independence, Constitution of the United States of America and all it’s Amendments. This state with it’s strong GOP pseudo leadership is at the top of the list of worst offenders of these documents as well as the Constitution of the State of Indiana. Look up what our own Constitution says about education for everyone – then look at reality of our education system here. How can we expect the average person in this state to be aware of these truths and the information necessary to make intelligent decisions; whether it be about their vote or their day-to-day living situations. The battle rages on over “Obamacare”; our health decisions regarding ourselves and our families are part of our “liberty” and “pursuit of happiness” along with OUR religious options and who to love and marry. This bill is to help all who need medical care but cannot afford it and to “encourage” those who can afford it but refuse to pay for their health care to do so. They are only a part of the result of lack of education; being able to comprehend the information we are inundated with daily is a major issue. Education is information but, if we don’t comprehend information or know when and what to question and seek further answers, information is useless blathering. I am of the age where “back in the day” is almost “days of yore”; but I have learned enough to know there are more questions than answers at my disposal. “Those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it.” That is more true today than ever before; forgetting results of ignoring the needs and rights of the masses vs. filling coffers of the few has us buried under the current situation due, in most part, to lack of education and awareness of needing to be educated.

  3. In answer to your direct query, no the friend would not see things differently. First, cognitive dissonance would likely interfere with any effort to change his worldview. Second, just look at the “pick & choose” theology so prevalent among the Christian Right. They’ll move heaven & earth (pun intended) to stop abortion & same sex marriage based on a handful of Biblical passages (and a flawed understanding at that) yet will barely lift a finger to do most of the things their scripture demands of them all while gleefully violation other prohibitions. Truth and accuracy are irrelevant. Before you can teach civic literacy, you need to teach basic reading comprehension, solve cognitive dissonance, demonstrate that empirical evidence has value, and show that an oft-repeated lie doesn’t become true by repetition.

  4. Michael,

    You don’t need religion to oppose abortion. (There are plenty of atheists who oppose abortion.) You only need to know some basic facts about pre-natal development to oppose the current status of the law that mandates abortion on demand through viability and beyond that if the woman’s physical, mental or emotional health is deemed to be endangered.

  5. Here is a bit of Republican Party history many of you may not be aware of. My mother worked in the Indiana Department of Internal Revenue in the mid-late 1960’s. There was a required 2% “donation” from all state and local employees each payday – this was deducted from their paychecks at that time. When I began working as a clerk-typist in IPD in 1972 under Mayor Lugar; this same 2% “donation” was still required to keep your job. My take-home pay at that time was $64 for a 40 hour week. It was no longer deducted from paychecks but we had to stand in line every payday and pay that 2% in cash before the end of the day. A police sargeant in the Fingerprint Division told her clerk-typists this was illegal and they didn’t have to pay it if they didn’t want to. Five of them stopped paying their 2% “donation” and suddenly disappeared from IPD. Our questions as to why they were gone went unaswered – till talking to someone in that division after hours. Along came Mayor Bill Hudnut; we received word that, if we wanted to donate 2% or any portion of our paycheck to the Republican party, it would gladly be accepted. If we chose not to pay that 2%; it was our money to do with as we pleased – we had earned it. This is a bit of local government history; had there been anyone with education and information – and guts – regarding civil and human rights, the story might have changed before Mayor Hudnut came on the scene. Lack of education can be costly – in many ways.

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