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Ignorance isn’t strength

Jan 10, 2017

Ten days from now we will have a new President, and in time he will name a new justice to the Supreme Court, and eventually a nominee is likely to be confirmed.

I teach college students, mostly seniors and graduates, journalism history and law. And sometime after the new justice takes office, one will ask me when they’ll have to run for reelection. They don’t, of course; they are selected for life.

But I’ve become used to the fact that the vast majority of Americans are grossly ignorant of how their government is supposed to work. For many years, high school students in this state have been required to take and pass a one-semester civics course.

I attended a working-class high school in the 1960s, and recall having to learn the difference between the state and federal court systems and the strong mayor and city manager forms of government. But as far as I can tell, whatever kids learn in civics these days passes through many of them rather like a stone through a goose.

You might think, if you live in a well-educated household, that these are just anecdotes from someone who, after all, teaches, in Detroit. But there’s plenty of evidence that we face an alarming tide of national ignorance. A survey of American adults by the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania in 2014 found that more than one third were unable to name any one of the three branches of the government.

Many thought a close Supreme Court decision was sent back to Congress for reconsideration, and most didn’t know which party controlled either the House or Senate.

When I read this, I had the same thought I had on Election Night, that of Benjamin Franklin emerging from the Constitutional Convention in 1787 and being asked by a woman what form of government our leaders had given us. “A republic, if you can keep it,” he said. To his great credit, State Representative Pete Lucido, a Republican from Macomb County, has done something about this. The one group of adults I’ve found to be the best informed are immigrants who have taken the test to become U.S. citizens.

Lucido managed to get a bill passed last session that will require high school teachers to cover the same material that immigrants must know to pass the citizenship test they have to take.

Students are going to need to know the same material covered in the one hundred questions on the citizenship exam. Actually, would-be citizens are only asked a random ten questions, but they must answer orally and get at least six right.

Lucido’s bill was signed into law with little fanfare last week by Lt. Gov. Brian Calley, and the media barely noticed. Actually, I think we should have made a big deal out of this.

There’s a quote from President John Adams inscribed over a fireplace in the state dining room of the White House, which says in part, “May none but the wise men ever rule under this roof.” There was a lot of concern during the last presidential campaign as to whether one of the candidates knew enough about how our government functions.

Maybe if our citizens knew more, we’d have a little less to fear.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s Senior Political Analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.