I'm a history buff and a total civics geek. Let me put it this way: The highlight of the past week for me was when my daughter won an award in school for getting a perfect score on a quiz about the U.S. Constitution.
So you can imagine my despair at a depressing survey making the rounds on the internet lately, involving Oklahoma public high school students and their incredibly poor knowledge of American history and civics.
Of the 1,000 students surveyed - ironically in a poll commissioned to honor Constitution Day Sept. 17 - only 23 percent knew that George Washington was the first U.S. president.
Only 28 percent knew that the Constitution is the supreme law of the land.
Only 10 percent knew that nine justices sit on the U.S. Supreme Court.
Only 43 percent could name the two major political parties in the U.S. (A whopping 11 percent of those answered "Republicans" and "Communists," though I suspect this answer comes under the category of "wise-ass.)
Indeed, there was only a single question that more than half of these Oklahoma high-schoolers answered correctly: What ocean is on the east coast of the United States?
And 39 percent couldn't get that one right.
It's easy to bash a place like Oklahoma - where high school football is considered a cultural activity - but I have a sinking feeling that a lot of states, including Georgia, would post similar numbers.
This disastrous failure of civics education is a multigenerational and systemic issue, not one limited to Oklahoma public schools or even to public schools in general.
What civics nerds like me keep saying is that America does not and cannot function without well-informed citizens. Our original civics geek, Thomas Jefferson - who not coincidentally is also the father of American public education - said it best:
Whenever the people are well-informed, they can be trusted with their own government; that, whenever things get so far wrong as to attract their notice, they may be relied on to set them to rights.
Note the unspoken corollary: If the people are not well-informed, then they cannot be trusted with their own government - because they will elect representatives who do not have their interests at heart.
And where do most citizens get their information? Ah, therein lies the problem.
A lot of talk is focused today on the "anger" that's out there, a rising tide of citizen discontent most obviously expressed in the "Tea Parties" that have dominated cable news channels for what seems like months.
While there's certainly no shortage of anger - some of it very justified - what I don't hear people talking about is how misinformation can make people angry at the wrong things.
For example, here's another recent survey: Public Policy Polling found that only 59 percent of voters believe President Obama was born in the United States.
Most of the misinformation on this issue stems from a series of viral e-mails that made the rounds during the last election and which are now accepted as gospel truth by millions of people, despite ample evidence to the contrary.
That's maddening enough, but it's not even the weirdest result of the survey. You'd assume that the 40 percent of those who think Obama was born in a foreign country would be Republicans. Not so - the percentage is about the same for everyone.
What this means, of course, is that a sizeable percentage of voters both support Obama and think he wasn't born here, i.e., they have no idea that the Constitution only allows natural-born citizens to be president.
This stuff drives me crazy. I can relate to someone with any strongly-held position if that person has a good foundation of knowledge.
But how do you respond to someone who can't understand that when you talk about "czars" in the federal government, czar is just a nickname -it doesn't literally mean the same thing as a ruler of Imperial Russia?
How do you begin to tell someone who calls Obama a fascist and a socialist that the president might be one or the other, but he can't be both - since by definition those are diametrically opposed philosophies?
Speaking of fascists, let's talk about this whole Hitler thing. Yeah, I'm going there.
So you posted on Facebook that Obama is like Hitler. Pretty clever! Original, too!
So Obama's like Hitler, eh? Really? Do you have any idea who Hitler was or what he did?
Let's compare, shall we?
One was a psychopathic white supremacist who killed about ten million Jews, Gypsies and homosexuals in concentration camps and at least 20 million other civilians in a global war that he started to please his own megalomaniacal ends.
The other is an African American president struggling with controversial domestic legislation and encumbered with an ineffective and fractured congressional majority.
Yes, you're right - they're exactly alike!
Look, it's cool if you don't like Obama. A lot of people don't. That's your right, and history may vindicate you.
But if you don't think there's a connection between idiots on Facebook saying Obama is Hitler and the recent poll on Facebook asking "Should Obama be killed?," you're an idiot yourself. (It has since been taken down.)
A lot of critics blame celebrity news and "infotainment" on this civic dumbing-down, but I don't buy that at all. From ancient Rome to Victorian England to modern times, people have always been obsessed with celebrities. That's just human nature.
The media can and probably should cover "celebrity news" as well as actual news. We do that all the time at Connect Savannah - it's our bread and butter. The problem comes when instead of providing information, the media reinforces misinformation because it's easier - and often more profitable - to do so.
For example, Savannah is one of 11 markets in the country being treated to a half-hour TV infomercial "educating" the public about Obama's alleged foreign roots. For a contribution of $30 you get a bumper sticker!
Yes, there's freedom of speech in this country. But TV stations can also turn down advertising they deem offensive or libelous, or in this case just plain false.
Bottom line, the media has largely abandoned one of the core purposes of our profession: to provide a baseline level of civics knowledge so that we might have that Jeffersonian "well-informed citizenry."
It's enough to make me want to take up digging ditches, or - shudder - government work. Just not in Oklahoma.
Speaking of misinformation, there's some out there about this Sunday's Picnic in the Park. Despite what you may read elsewhere, unlike previous years the Picnic won't be a symphonic performance, but a vocal and instrumental tribute to Johnny Mercer, marking the centennial of his birth in Savannah.
Yours truly will be one of the picnic judges, and with any luck we'll run some photos in next week's issue. Naturally all the picnics this year need to have a Johnny Mercer theme. We're expecting great things, so get to work!
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