Thursday, September 03, 2009

A civics-education deficit in the US?

Kevin Levin at his Civil War Memory blog raises an interesting point in his 09/02/09 blog post “Why Would Anyone Fight For Union?” Kevin's a high-school history teacher in Virginia who specializes in the history of the American Civil War and also has original research published on the topic. His blog is one of the leading blogs on the Civil War - quite a feat given the level of general interest in the topic - and one of the best-written blogs I know in general.

He's talking about having to deal with two difficulties his high-school students generally have in approaching the whole subject of the Civil War: what the "states-rights" issue really means, and the notion of why people would volunteer to fight for the Union. His comments on the states-rights business are on point. But I was particularly struck by his thought on why the latter is such a problem, since he's puzzled that so many kids would find it so hard to grasp that people would want to fight for the United States in 1861:

Finally, (and I don’t mean to get all political on you) I can’t help but wonder if the rhetoric on the far right is not reinforcing this general mistrust and lack of confidence in the federal government, specifically among younger Americans. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t mind a vigorous critique of federal policies and skepticism since it functions as an important check on the power of government, but much of what I am hearing smacks of fear mongering and outright hatred. Who in their right mind would be willing to make the ultimate sacrifice or identify with nation and flag if even ten percent of Glen [sic] Beck’s characterization of our government is accurate? Even without knowing how much time they spend pondering such things I can’t help but think that it has contributed to a growing difficulty in the individual’s ability to identify with abstractions such as “Union” and “Nation.” [my emphasis]
I think it’s a great question whether the far right rhetoric really does undermine what most of us would think of as American patriotism. With people like Beck and Republican Party head Rush Limbaugh and FOX News in general giving legitimacy to people talking about the need to stockpile guns to fight the socialist-communist-fascist-atheist takeover the far right claim to think is underway, it’s not surprising that a lot of kids would wonder about the whole concept of fighting for the United States and the American way of life.

I’ve also been seriously wondering what effect all this talk equating liberalism and socialism and communism and fascism and The Terrorists has on the thinking of kids who are surrounded by adults they consider credible who talk this stuff. I mean, how can someone even begin to understand the history of the world in the 20th century without having some basic notion of the differences between those concepts? (Then there’s what “liberalism" means in most of the world versus what in means in the US; I won’t even go there.) What would someone think who merges those concepts in their heads – like Glenn Beck or Sean Hannity do on their programs – if they heard someone a literate discussion of the conflicts between the German Social Democrats and the Communists in Germany during the Weimar Republic and what role that played in the process leading up to Hitler’s takeover? How could they process it as anything but gibberish?

Democrats should be careful about taking satisfaction in the fact that some of the raving at these town hall meetings this past month or what goes out daily on Hate Radio is dumb as it can be, and sometimes downright insane. Because those ideas are firing up activists who may wind up making the difference between meaningful health care reform being enacted or not.

But that talk really is a severely dumbed-down way of presenting news and political commentary. And it has to be having some kind of educationally retarding effect on a lot of kids. I would like to think that over the long term we could have a healthy democracy. But for that to happen, there has to be some minimal general level of understanding of civics. I don't mean heavy political theory, I'm talking about how to make the most elementary distinctions about policies and ideas and political programs.


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