As we approach a post-presidency impeachment trial, my mind returns to what we witnessed during the past few weeks, during the past four years, raising the question of how we have become so divided as a nation.
Some blame the rift on social media, on talk radio, on certain news networks motivated by radical ideologies. Others attribute our national dysfunction to a growing disrespect for our institutions, a disaffection heating to a boil over the last generation or so.
The roots of discontent run much deeper in our history, a subject most Americans prefer to ignore beyond a few patriotic slogans and an anthem lip-synched before ball games. A forward-looking people, we tend to forget the rise of dictators in Europe two generations ago when whole nations were held in thrall by promises from a charismatic demagogue playing on Germany’s resentment and humiliation following World War I.
We feel entitled, ever mindful of our rights but strangely silent about our responsibilities. As citizens, we are strident in asserting our right to bear arms and free speech but casual about our civic duties in voting, keeping informed, weighing the worth of ideas based on reason and the primacy of empirical fact.
Many of those in the swollen crowd of protesters outside the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 are as much victims as perpetrators. They are victims of a national complacency about educating an informed citizenry, a sustaining element in any democracy. Without the means or will to question lies, they have come to believe that elections have been stolen without needing a demonstration of evidence.
Many subscribe to cock-eyed theories that do not hold up under scrutiny. The doors to an education should be opened to every American regardless of class, race, or background as a national priority.
How is the source of our failures rooted in the dumbing down of our country? Many of us remain fundamentally ignorant about the mechanisms of government and the way the country works. Slogans and verbal potshots have become our common currency. Books are strangers to many of us. Though we are glued to our smart phones, how many of us read even one book a year?
Many of our failures stem from our susceptibility to half-truths and outright lies, promulgated by a few of us to manipulate public opinion out of self-interest rather than the public good. Intent on our personal freedom and buttering our own bread, we discount what we cannot be bothered to understand, including government and the role it plays in our lives. Subject to superstition and this superficial view of things, we now are harvesting the results of a mediocre public education system that reflects the poverty of our cultural values.
We deny the science of wearing masks and the erratic patterns of weather that result from degradation of the planet. We ignore the model of science as a tool to ascertain truth through rigorous testing of data — a model that requires a healthy skepticism and fidelity to truth that must be proved before acceptance.
Large segments of our people are willing inheritors of the anti-intellectualism that America has nurtured since Jamestown and Plymouth Rock. Unfortunately, too many are the inheritors of racial views that should have been left in the 18th century.
Too many of us lack the discipline or desire to engage in critical thinking. Our universities are better known for the success of their athletic teams than the quality and substance of their products — educated citizens.
How can we turn our failures around?
First, free prekindergarten education must be adopted in every school system, urban and rural, rich and poor, white and non-white. The cost will be great, but the cost of not doing it will be greater.
Second, students should be required, as I and my generation were, to study civics for fundamental knowledge of the systems that govern and protect us. This should include reading the U.S. Constitution and its evolution as a living document as well as the Declaration of Independence and its aspirational goal of all men, and women, being created equal.
Third, students should have exposure to critical thinking as a means of assessing ideas and forming opinions based on evidence rather than unchallenged belief or gut impulse. This should include the anatomy of argument and the fallacies that issue from the lips of our leaders and proverbial used car dealers.
Personal attacks and emotional appeals — to patriotism, for example — are not substitutes for debate and a civilized exchange of ideas. Barking is no substitute for reason. Free speech has its cost when the loudest and most extreme dominate our discourse.
We must learn to accept opinions and bald assertions only after reasons are cogently given. We must learn that even though we live in a democracy where all of us are presumably equal, not all ideas are equal.
We must learn to distinguish between knowledge and belief, between opinion and fact. Each is subject to the weight of evidence. All of us need to have some familiarity with the fundamentals substantiating our points with evidence and reason.
The Enlightenment, out of which our democracy was born, promoted rationality and order as values that could displace, if not wholly replace, ignorance and superstition. We need to acknowledge that language matters. Remember the protester who shouted to his cohorts that “the calvary is coming!”
Finally, we need a basic grounding in our history, especially matters of discrimination and white privilege that too often is the common theme of our past. Unless we adopt these and similar reforms, we run the risk of becoming the greatest de-cerebralized nation in the West and sowing the seeds, as we are witnessing now, of our undoing.
During the War of 1812, during which our Capitol was invaded for the first time, the brilliant Shawnee leader Tecumseh attempted to unite native peoples to protect their heartland. His brother, a prophet and demagogue who claimed to have supernatural powers, convinced many of Tecumseh’s followers that their skin was impervious to bullets. Whipped into a frenzy, they rashly attacked forces under future President William Henry Harrison at the Battle of the Tippecanoe where they had a tragic revelation that they were subject to the laws of nature.
Something of the same has happened 200 years later in the nation’s capital. The lesson, as we are learning now, is blunt and painful.
We need to set our educational house in order or count ourselves consenting victims of ignorance and superstition. This remedy may not resolve our current crisis but will help forestall future ones.
Racism, conspiracy theories, delusional behavior, blind allegiance, idolatry and plain gullibility — ignorance in all its strains is our unannounced pandemic, widespread and deadly.
Richard Taylor of Frankfort is a former Kentucky poet laureate who teaches English at Transylvania University. He formerly worked at Kentucky State University. He can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.