Magazine article USA TODAY

Seeking an Involved and Informed Citizenry

Magazine article USA TODAY

Seeking an Involved and Informed Citizenry

Article excerpt

THE IDEA OF HAVING an informed citizenry making decisions in a democracy is somewhat new. In the early 17th century in England, for example, there was little interest in such a concept. The issue then was obedience to the king. Very few people were able to vote, and those who did were among the wealthier individuals. Free speech and free press were not really very prevalent before the 18th century when the colonists came to North America. Here, voting in local elections was much more widespread because property ownership, at least for white males, was much more common. The revolutionaries felt that only with an informed citizenry could they protect themselves from a return to the autocratic government of the English king.

After the Revolutionary War, there were bitterly divided political parties, a split which has continued to the present day. The Constitution and the Founding Fathers did not anticipate political parties and they were disappointed by their prevalence. Education became very important in order to overcome the dangers of mob rule. To encourage a more informed electorate, our young nation fostered common school reform, free speech, and a free press.

In the 1830s and 1840s, elections saw huge turnouts. Today, we might lament, "If only we had lived in the 1830s!" The problem is that those individuals probably did not know what they were voting for because the idea of an involved electorate was not necessarily the same as being an informed electorate. Then, as now, a lot of the people voted motivated by religious convictions rather than an understanding of the issues.

By the end of the 19th century, our schools began to educate for democracy, and American historians were very focused on helping high school teachers teach. However, as education became professionalized, that changed. Political scientists and historians gave up their responsibility of helping and working with secondary school teachers. They also moved away from history and instead became involved in social studies, which had little to do with the political process.

Today, even in colleges and universities, senior faculty seldom teach the introductory courses which provide the necessary background for effective political involvement. Moreover, such courses are not required of students. At the University of Michigan, for instance, probably less than one-fifth of the students are taking introductory history courses. It seems clear, however, that universities must assert their responsibility to help shape secondary education and provide adequate education for democracy within their own walls.

Moreover, universities are deficient in giving students opportunities to hear different points of view. Religious issues are not well covered because we generally do not allow people who could provide these perspectives to be part of the faculties. Still another part of the problem is speech codes, which restrict what we can, in fact, talk about; such codes do not encourage open discussion.

How effective have our schools been in educating for democracy? …

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