Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Happy Birthday, America!

The United States of America was founded 236 years ago today.  She's been through a lot of good times and bad times.  She's been involved in a civil war and in world wars, and she's sometimes fought in wars that shouldn't have been fought.  She's been the beacon of freedom for many people who have immigrated to this country to escape political or religious persecution, war and poverty.  Because of her Bill of Rights and economic freedom, she's enabled many people to reinvent their lives and become what they aspire to be.  In a democracy, there's always disagreement and often loud dissenting speech.  Some call it a messy form of government.  I call it the best form of government because it ultimately leaves it to a majority of people to decide who they want to govern them while it protects the basic rights and liberty of the minority to speak and to live according to their beliefs and values. Nobody  is born into leadership, nobody inherits leadership, no god ordains leadership, and regular periodic elections are held to discard unpopular leadership so that no one has to take leadership through force of arms.

It is my opinion that the American people are basically caring for the oppressed, the underdog, and the poor because it is our own history.  We Americans do not like "Bullies" and we generally live by the motto: "Live and Let Live." But sometimes I see my fellow Americans enage in "bullying behavior" against people, religions, and cultures that are not like themselves.  I believe that the American people, because of their relative good fortune, are sometimes living in a bubble of ignorance about the world.  Some of us do not always respect or understand other countries and cultures because we do not have any direct experience with them.  Today, we celebrate as Americans the ideals of freedom and the pursuit of happiness.  However, too many Americans seem to not share a common understanding of those ideals anymore. And, distressingly, too many Americans don't exercise their right to vote in elections.  Many find the current tone of public debate stressful and uncivil. "Negative ads" dominate our media.  Too often I hear people wanting to vote "against" someone or something rather than "for" someone or something.  It's rare to find Americans who understand our civic structure and process, i.e. how laws are made, how a national budget is enacted, and other basic elements of our government.  I remember my own 12th grade Civics teacher, Mr. Fletcher, who drilled in us the basics of our democracy and demanded that we show competence through his many "pop quizes".  Do we not teach "Civics" anymore?  Does anyone care?

These days, I see a trend of the American people reacting emotionally to symbolism and "wedge issues" with little comprehension of the actual policies of the candidates in an election.  I lament that education in America no longer holds the importance that Thomas Jefferson championed  when he said that the availability of a free and universal education is a requirement to maintain a democratic form of government. In 1806, President Thomas Jefferson advocated in his State of the Union Address for a Constitutional amendment to provide for a federally supported educational system for every child and citizen of the new Nation:
Every government degenerates when trusted to the rulers of the people alone. The people themselves are its only safe depositories. And to render even them safe, their minds must be improved to a certain degree. . . . An amendment to our constitution must here come in aid of the public education. The influence over government must be shared among all people. (as cited in Padover, 1939, p. 87)

Although his desire for a Constitutional Amendment went unrealized, Jefferson was able to establish a free and great university in his own state of Virginia. Jefferson, however, felt that a government-supported free and universal primary education was far more important than just the education of an elite few as was the case in Europe at the time.  His principles for universal primary education were as follows:

1."To give every citizen the information he needs for the transaction of his own business;

2.To enable him to calculate for himself, and to express and preserve his ideas, his contracts, and accounts, in writing;

3.To improve, by reading, his morals and faculties;

4.To understand his duties to his neighbors and country, and to discharge with competence the functions confided to him by either;

5.To know his rights; to exercize with order and justice those he retains; to choose with discretion the fiduciary of those he delegates; and to notice their conduct with diligence, with candor, and judgment;

6.And, in general, to observe with intelligence and faithfulness all the social relations under which he shall be placed." (as cited in Peterson, 1960, p. 239)
Today, I am worried that the principle of a free and universal education is under attack.  Local and State governments are slashing educational budgets in tight economies.  Teachers are undervalued and demonized by politicians looking for scape-goats for a failing educational system that turns out under-educated children in a world with major challenges and increasing competition for highly educated citizens.  All the Republican candidates running for President have advocated the elimination of a federal role in supporting education and even the elimination of the Department of Education.  Many citizens feel that we should not pay for education because they do not agree with what is taught in the schools.  The Texas Republican Party Platform opposes the teaching of "critical thinking skills" because they may challenge what is taught at home. 

I believe that every American needs to understand that improving and supporting education is a key 2012 Election issue for at least two reasons:
  • Without a good education for all our citizens, we cannot provide the workforce, know-how, and new ideas to compete economically, as individuals or as a nation.
  • Without a good education, in both general knowledge and in critical thinking skills, we cannot maintain a democratic form of government.   
I do not believe that Americans on the whole are persuaded by ad hominem attacks and they long for informative civil debate on the  issues by the nominees for President.  But voters often lack basic knowledge of our how our government works and their knowledge of the issues is scanty or one-sided, often conforming to their own narrow view of the world. To be a better voter, we would all benefit from reading a bit of Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Paine.  We also ought to read each of the candidates own words rather than some Blogger or Political Commentator's interpretations of the candidate's views and program.  Now, let's celebrate America's Birthday:

No comments:

Post a Comment