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BILL CRAWFORD — Can civic education save democracy from social media?


As two of the three branches of government become more and more politicized, the posture of the third will play a crucial role in how our federal government works.

The two politicized branches, of course, are the executive and legislative. The third, and supposed to always rise above politics, is the judicial branch.

Last week, U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts spoke on behalf of the judicial branch.

“We have come to take democracy for granted,” he wrote in his year-end report, “and civic education has fallen by the wayside.

“In our age, when social media can instantly spread rumor and false information on a grand scale, the public’s need to understand our government, and the protections it provides, is ever more vital.”

Many among the highly politicized deemed Roberts’ comments a swipe at President Donald Trump and other highly visible politicians and blatantly biased media.

Maybe, but what Roberts appeared to truly mean is we as a nation are not preparing citizens with the proper knowledge and orientation to decipher truth from political propaganda.

“Civic education, like all education, is a continuing enterprise and conversation,” he wrote. “Each generation has an obligation to pass on to the next, not only a fully functioning government responsive to the needs of the people, but the tools to understand and improve it.”

In plain terms, he means social media is not an honest source for civic education.

The intended source is public education – schools, colleges, and universities. Indeed, that is why free public education was promoted by our founding fathers.

“Educate and inform the whole mass of the people,” wrote Thomas Jefferson. “Enable them to see that it is their interest to preserve peace and order, and they will preserve them. And it requires no very high degree of education to convince them of this. They are the only sure reliance for the preservation of our liberty.”

(Personal note: the late Mary Brooks of Jackson taught me this in high school. As one who believed passionately in civic education and responsibility, she would be aghast at today’s civic illiteracy.)

Johns Hopkins University President Ronald J. Daniels believes universities hold the key to civic education in modern times.

“Alarming numbers of young people struggle to distinguish reliable information from misinformation online,” he wrote last week, “and the public’s faith in core democratic institutions — and fellow citizens — is eroding more by the day.”

Calling for higher education to provide a “truly robust civic education,” he said such must include “a grasp of the history and theory of democracy to bring a nuanced understanding of the past to public life, and critical reasoning skills that help to distinguish true information from false.” He also included, “a commitment to values such as tolerance and equality that provide standards against which to hold policymakers and policies to account, and a disposition directed toward cooperation and action.”

Roberts and Daniels, like Jefferson, propound a clarion call to reason in the face of growing unreason. Amidst today’s politicized cacophony, who will hear their call, much less heed it?

“For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths.” – 2 Timothy 4:3-4.

» BILL CRAWFORD is a syndicated columnist from Meridian.


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