It Isn’t Just Me

I know I sound like a broken record on the subject of civic knowledge, but I’m not the only person despairing of the consequences of our civic deficit. A recent article in Salon by C.J. Werleman describes the civic landscape and its implications.

A few of the author’s more trenchant observations:

The health of a democracy is dependent on an educated citizenry.  Political illiteracy is the manure for the flourishing of political appeals based on sheer ignorance.

So let me introduce you to House Majority Speaker Eric Cantor’s Republican Party vanquisher David Brat (R-VI). First thing you need to know about this far right-wing political upstart is he’s a university professor, which means it’s highly probable he’s not an idiot. He also identifies with the Tea Party strain of conservatism, which, paradoxically, means it’s likely he is, indeed, an idiot. And by idiot, I mean wholly ignorant of U.S. history and constitutionality.

In fact, in his victory speech delivered last week to his supporters, Brat demonstrated that he sits among the majority of Americans when it comes to political and cultural illiteracy.

“I wish to restore America to its Judeo-Christian roots,” declared Brat. “God acted through people on my behalf.”

Ignoring the self-delusion of the latter part of the above text, Brat now joins no less than 200 million Americans, according to a number of polls, who believe the U.S. Constitution and our laws are based on Judeo-Christian values. On any given Sunday you will hear Christian-right politicians claim absurdly that U.S. laws are based on the Bible. Spoiler alert: they’re dead wrong. The Constitution’s secular provisions came into being thanks to the Founding Fathers, who shared a deep suspicion of both organized religion and the supernatural. The Constitution was framed with a conscious omission of any mention of God and a prohibition of all religious tests for public office. Moreover, the First Amendment’s declaration that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion” embodied the founders’ view that religion has no place in the political domain.

That not a single major media outlet bothered to correct Brat’s ignorance represents America’s continual decline in American civic and cultural literacy.

The rest of the article is equally scathing, and well worth reading, but I want to focus on that last quoted paragraph, because I think it points to one of the major reasons Americans are so uninformed, and so easily manipulated.

We have lost journalism.

What used to be called “the journalism of verification” has disappeared into a sea of Kardashian-watching, Faux News “reporting,” hate radio, consumerism and internet conspiracy theories. The few actual reporters who remain–and I mean few (a couple of years ago I used a textbook in my Media and Policy class titled “Will the Last Reporter Please Turn Out the Lights”)–simply do not know enough to ask what should be obvious follow-up questions, or to provide readers with background and context that would allow them to properly evaluate what political actors are saying or doing.

Werleman is dead-on when he concludes:

In other words, when Republicans say there is no such thing as gravity, and Democrats reply that gravity is real, CNN and the like say, “Look, Democrats and Republicans are fighting again,” which not only exacerbates the nation’s anti-intellectualism and anti-rationalism, but also increases the likelihood of extremist views and falsehoods taking hold in the national electorate.

We’ve replaced fact-checkers with “he said/she said” stenographers, and in the process, we’ve created a political world in which there are no facts–only opinions.

It’s a recipe for disaster. Ignorance isn’t a survival strategy.


  1. Spot on and I’m sick of it. I want news like the old days. CNN is awful. I stopped watching it years ago.

  2. You are SO right about this. Most local news is news we can’t use. (I tune out on police and fire runs.) National news is bent on sensationalism too, but the rush for ratings and circulation isn’t working so well for many in the news business. It seems the free press forgets why the founding fathers felt it necessary, and the public finds the new media irrelevant to their lives as well.

  3. I think it beyond ignorance but a coordinated manipulative effort for some (Koch brother types) to twist that political knowledge for their own economic gain. I know it sounds conspiracy theory-esque but when you have a whole TV network dedicated to twisting the entire story of our history, it’s pretty damn scary. Thomas Jefferson, among many others, would be so appalled!!!!

  4. The LOCAL news is even worse. Ch 8 for example: When our President delivers a significant speech on an important issue, Ch8 will tell us. “MISTER Obama made a speech today and here is Jim Shella and the Local Dimwit Republicans to tell you why MISTER Obama is full of crap.” They seldom even show you what the Pres had to say. JUST why he is full of Crap according to the R’s & Jim Shella. The Tiffany network my behind.

  5. While it can’t fix journalism, the public library does have a role in restoring citizens’ basic knowledge about how government and the political process works and what roles the citizen can play in each.

  6. If you haven’t yet read some of the articles that Sheila has highlighted for you in red, you need to take the time to read today’s recommended piece by Werleman in Salon. He nailed it and we’re in trouble, in case there were any doubt.

    Thanks, Sheila!

  7. A lack of critical thinking, a lack of historical knowledge and a blind acceptance of clearly unscientific ideas are major problems. These are some reasons I can think of why we have this great divide.

    Jeff Hecht asked the question, “Why doesn’t America believe in evolution?” Human beings, as we know them, developed from earlier species of animals: true or false? This simple question is splitting America apart, with a growing proportion thinking that we did not descend from an ancestral ape. A survey of 32 European countries, the US and Japan has revealed that only Turkey is less willing than the US to accept evolution as fact.

    November 10, 2013 – Last year, Gallup once again reported that nearly half of the country believe the Biblical version of events: “Forty-six percent of Americans believe in the creationist view that God created humans in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years.”
    The Gallup poll also posed the following based on political ID: God created humans in their present form within the last 10,000 years – 58% of Republicans agreed. 31% of Republicans agreed with, Humans evolved God guided the process.

    Brat stated “God acted through people on my behalf.” Thus, in a sense Brat simply confirms a belief that God acts, dictates or directs human activities. This idea that the Politically Powerful leaders act out God’s will is nothing new. Kings, Princes, etc., have tried to wrap themselves into religion for thousands of years. The Divine Right of Kings was one expression of this.

  8. It is not that these people take the bible too seriously. They don’t take it seriously enough. In their laziness and unwillingness to appreciate the difficulty and sophistication of that literature, they have robbed themselves and their hearers of insights and appreciations it has to offer. For centuries Christian and Jewish scholars have told us not to read Genesis literally, but we are in a narcissistic age, in which people believe that great literature (bible as well as Constitution) was written TO them, not FOR them, and anything worth understanding should be predigested and simplified, and that they are entitled to be spoon fed any insights that they need to know which may interrupt their busy lives.

  9. I fall further behind every day. Despite trying hard not to. Despite adequate cognitive abilities and education. Despite strong motivation.

    Why? What all of us know gets added to every day more than I can keep up with.

    I’m getting relatively dumber every day.

    More and more I have to rely on expert others to teach me every day, just to not fall further behind.

    That’s not to mention current events and their meaning.

    Hopeless? Yes.

    Is there any good news? Yes. The Internet. The recognition that education is a daily lifelong demand. Recognition of the consequences if my shortcomings are not mitigated.

    I miss the ease of having credible media people sort it all out for, and serve it to, me everyday. Of knowing who to trust and believe and who not. On the Internet I have to rely on the kindness of strangers every day and figure out for myself who are on the side of progress and who are peddling self serving agendas.

    I can never catch up, but I can do what I can do.

    How about you?

  10. To your lost journalism point, Sheila, here’s a sterling example. Will Higgins writes for the Star, and I remember him producing some good pieces back in the day. Recently and incomprehensibly, he was given the task of comparing the characters in two tearjerkers, “The Fault in Our Stars” and “Love Story”, such as the lovers in TFIOS went on a trip to Europe, and the lovers in LS were going to go on a trip to Paris, the boy in TFIOS drives recklessly and Oliver drives recklessly, one character in each dies…. The article is just
    as lame as it sounds.

  11. Science is nothing more, or less, than what reality says in it’s language, data, when asked – is this the truth?

    Faith is nothing more, or less, than what our souls say in their language, dreams, when asked – can I have this?

  12. I just spotted a Facebook post of Common Core Math – trying to understand that crap reminds me of trying to figure out what the Republicans are doing, why they are doing – or not doing whatever – what exactly they are saying and where they get their information to reach such conclusions. The Common Core Math did eventually reach the same answer that the simple subtraction problem reached but all meaning got lost in the lengthy process. I managed to reconcile my checkbook this afternoon using simple, old fashioned adding and subtracting – in a few lines of one checkbook record for an entire month. Of course my grandchildren and great-grandchildren may not understand because I still use cursive to record where my few dollars go. I’m jut a little old fashioned girl at heart; maybe this explains why I no longer understand the Republicans of today. They seem to be using a lengthy, impossible to understand format to reach the wrong conclusion. Are they over-educated or is it a case of “a little knowledge is a dangerous thing”? There is also the more recent adage, “A mind is a terrible thing to waste.”

  13. JoAnn –

    Give common core a chance. It’s easy to think the “new math” is confusing as hell if you haven’t been taught the logic.

    I was notoriously HORRIBLE in math. In high shook I never passed Algebra-I, and chose to drop out in the middle of my junior year instead of struggling for another year and a half (ironically I DID pass my Indiana GED exam a couple months later having never studied or completed more than the first two years of high school so that alone speaks volumes about Indiana’s academic standards right there!)

    Years later when I decided to go to college it was math that consistently slowed down my progress again, but when a bright young adjunct math professor taught me a different way to process the numbers it clicked in a way it never had before. I haven’t had to use a piece of paper and pencil to calculate an equation for several years now and my 8 year old and I often challenge each other to figure out crazy math problems in our heads on our long morning drives.

    I’ve heard interviews on NPR about common core and, while parents are freaking out because it wasn’t how they learned it in school, the interviews with many students that aired during the same program indicated that most of the students were actually enjoying the new way of approaching math. In the end it matters less what you and I think about these new standards- and matters most if students have an opportunity to be introduced to new ways of engaging to find answers in ways that make sense to them.

  14. Also, we should be FAR least freaked out about how math is taught. No amount of bible thumping or evangelizing will make 2+2 NOT = 4.

    It’s in teaching creationism and theology as science, civics and history that should truly scare the hell out of us.

  15. Apparently this is the post where I make up for being a “long time lurker, infrequent contributor” status!

    I just recommended to Sheila that her students studying journalism and civic discourse read George Orwell’s Essay on “Politics and the English Language” (and his analysis in 1942(?) on Mein Kampf). It is an incredibly great read that is just as relevant to contemporary discussions of civics and our political discourse as it was over 70 years ago when it was written. (Which is really sad as hell that we haven’t learned our lessons yet unfortunately) you can probably find it available to read online. (Penguine books also sells an inexpensive little booklet of both writings)

  16. Melissa; I just have one question regarding the Common Core Math format – WHY? When I went into high school, my 8th grade math teacher forwarded information that I was NOT to attempt Algebra but to take Freshman Math. I failed that…and Driver’s Ed due to stick shift. The shortest distance between two points is a straight line:)

  17. We all learn arithmetic and language. Some learn language so well that they are moved to poetry and prose that opens us to entirely new visions of life. So it is with math as well.

  18. I’m not sure when you attended high school or where, but Algebra was a requirement for graduation when I attended in the early ’90’s and my oldest just graduated from high school and it is still a requirement now.

    Freshman math in high school assumes that you are
    1. either ready for Algebra I or
    2. have already taken it and are ready to move on to calculus, trigonometry or finite math.

    If you are fortunate enough to have a university admit you with MY atrocious grasp of math you have to spend a lot time and money paying for semester after semester of math courses that don’t count toward your degree. Of the five semesters of math I took in college only two “counted” toward my degree credits. I think most college degrees require students to take a finite, statistics or calculus to graduate.

    The US has pathetic math comprehension compared to most thriving first world countries so I’m all for any teaching method that might reach students like myself who otherwise would have been left behind.

    The “old math” isn’t going anywhere and will likely still be taught for decades to come, but when you look at the academic statistics it’s clear that it wasn’t connecting with as many students as it could have been. (Granted there ARE other significantly influential variables such as class size, textbook access and funding to consider), but I’m all for rethinking the way we have been doing things if it means we can find a better ways for more people to achieve academic success.

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