No one as ignorant on the Constitution as Sarah Palin should be allowed out of high school. Apparently, she was one of those children left behind when our education system fell apart. But, it isn’t just civics that seems to be missing. There’s a whole lot more: critical thought, reasoning, evaluation of facts, understanding of what constitutes knowledge, awareness of the world around us, a certain understanding of history, and a feel for the underlying tenets of western civilization—some very fundamental things are simply absent.
You might argue that Palin is only one example, a data point. The problem isn’t that bad. But that doesn’t account for those millions who blithely listen and cheer as she de-educates vast swaths of the American populace. If she’s unusual, then why has she got thousands of cheering supporters?
Grumpy old men (and women) have bemoaned the deterioration of society for as long as we can see back into the mists of time. We know that because we have a sense of history. That’s apparently a luxury, these days. I look around and don’t see much evidence that core values are being taught, let alone learned.
It’s no surprise that we of the Baby Boom think the next generation has a lot to learn. For one thing we came of age during a time of economic surplus, built on the ruins of the Greatest War by the Greatest Generation. By the time we got on the scene you didn’t put milk in your coffee, you put cream. So, we had education lavished on us. Is it any wonder we’re education snobs?
Perhaps it’s inevitable, anyway. Each generation, as it ages, looks at the following and wonders how they could be so (fill in the blank). The answer is simple. If you’re from generation X, you have twenty years’ more experience than generation X+1. They’re always going to look hopelessly ill informed and careless.
Yet, that doesn’t explain the complete lack of historical perspective we’ve seen in the George W. Bushs, the Dick Cheneys and the Sarah Palins of the world, who are willing to throw habeas corpus to the wind (for example) or invade Afghanistan and Iraq. Something is just plain wrong with these people, and it isn’t that they are young and inexperienced. If it were two or three examples, then the individuals might be to blame. But, there are hordes who don’t know, say, if it’s a body of water between Iran and Saudi Arabia why it’s called the “Persian Gulf”. Or, if it’s called “Greenland”, then why is it covered with ice? There’s a deeper reason.
I posit that it’s their education. It’s defective.
And, one of the things we should fix in the next administration is education. I’m not talking about more money (although, that’s probably necessary) or stricter standards or some new teaching method. I’m talking about what we teach.
No one should get out of high school without a full course in the essentials of civics. They need to know mechanics like how to register to vote,* how to research what’s on the ballot, how a bill becomes law, and even how to start a campaign. They need to know certain facts, like jurisdictions, the parts of government, and how government is done differently in different states. But, more fundamentally, they need to know what it means to be a constitutional democracy with a representative government and why we have evolved that form of government. They need to understand why we believe this is the fairest form of government, and we need to give them the basis for buying in to our system of democracy. They need to understand why they should serve on a jury, even if they could make a few more bucks by begging off and showing up at their usual job.
This should extend to understanding the basis of law: common and legislated, tort law, equity, constitutional, and other legal concepts. They should understand the basis of real and intellectual property. They should understand where the concept of owning land as property came from, how it came out of feudal law, and how the land in this country was taken away from the indigenous people, divided up and parceled off to settlers. They should understand how money is created by law and how the economy works.
As a result, they should understand how capitalism works. They should understand how corporations are formed, how to get money to form them, and the roles of the people involved. They should be taught concepts like fiduciary responsibility and contractual obligation. They should know the difference between capitalism, socialism, communism, and fascism.
One of the reasons that McCain and Palin can get off calling Obama a socialist or a communist as if that makes him a bad person is because so few people in our society know what any of those things are.
A little history wouldn’t hurt, either. If our country is going to be a world leader, then why is it that we know so little about the world? Perhaps the American people should make their presidential candidates answer questions about history, culture, economics and government rather than what-if questions about who they might appoint to the Supreme Court. Is it too much to ask that they understand where to find Paraguay before it becomes a hot spot with two divisions of U.S. troops?
Sarah Palin, how many time zones is it from Fairbanks to Moscow? John McCain, which Baltic country weathered a sustained cyber attack in the last couple of years? George Bush, how many British men returned from Kabul in the 1840s after invading Afghanistan from India?
And, if you were that lone survivor, do you think you would recommend another invasion?
Very soon, every American will have re-learned all the institutions that Franklin Roosevelt’s administration created or revamped. Not just Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, but the WPA and the Federal Reserve System. Let’s hope they don’t have to learn exactly how he was able to stimulate the economy (with war spending) or have to live in a Hooverville. Let’s hope they don’t have words like “dust bowl” or “soup line” in their vocabulary. If a little macroeconomics was taught in high school, perhaps everyone would be able to tell you what those institutions do because they learned it in class instead of on their 401(k) statements.
Even more fundamentally, they could tell you why they are important. They would understand the historical context of their creation and could give the reasoning for it. They could also reason from existing situations to relevant solutions to new problems. If they understood the reserve rate, then they might question why companies could create new securities without a similar reserve requirement; how a credit default swaps market could come into being without some kind of reserve. And, in this way, our society might be protected from many avoidable disasters.
What irritates me the most about Palin’s candidacy is not that she represents some alien form of political thought, but rather that she represents no thought at all! And, even not that she’s so vacuous, but that the McCain campaign is so disorganized and absent of plan that it put her up to be VP without explaining what the VP actually does or how she would be expected to answer simple questions about it.
Q: Brandon Garcia wants to know, "What does the Vice President do?"
PALIN: That's something that Piper would ask me! ... [T]hey're in charge of the U.S. Senate so if they want to they can really get in there with the senators and make a lot of good policy changes that will make life better for Brandon and his family and his classroom.
How much better it would have gone! How much better if she’d simply gotten a call from the McCain folks before the convention:
“Sarah Palin. This is the McCain campaign. We have a mission for you. We want you to be Vice President of the United States. Nobody you meet on the campaign trail will know what this person does. Anyone who accidentally learned in school has long since forgotten because they never see a VP actually do anything. Significant. They don’t do anything significant once they are elected. So, we’re going to brief you. It’s a very simple job. Here’s all you need to know about it:
Article I, Section 3, Clause 4: The Vice President of the United States shall be President of the Senate, but shall have no Vote, unless they be equally divided.
Article II, Section 1, Clause 6: In Case of the Removal of the President from Office, or of his Death, Resignation, or Inability to discharge the Powers and Duties of the said Office, the Same shall devolve on the Vice President, and the Congress may by Law provide for the Case of Removal, Death, Resignation or Inability, both of the President and Vice President, declaring what Officer shall then act as President, and such Officer shall act accordingly, until the Disability be removed, or a President shall be elected.
“I realize it’s a thin portfolio, but that’s all we got for you.
“By the way, Sarah. That part about ‘President of the Senate’. In the entire history of the republic, all that means is that they follow the rules of the Senate, calling it into session, recognizing people to speak, that kind of thing. You might get the false impression that they are in charge. No. In fact, the Senate has this ‘President pro tem’ guy** who does all the grunt work, and you don’t really have to show up in Congress at all. And, in fact, you don’t get a say in anything unless there’s a tie. Everything else is handled by the Senators and their chief, a guy called the ‘Senate Majority Leader’. The Senate takes care of everything itself because they’ve been told (by the Constitution):
Article I, Section 5, Clause 2: Each House may determine the Rules of its Proceedings, punish its Members for disorderly Behaviour, and, with the Concurrence of two thirds, expel a Member.
“So, if you’re asked anything about the job, just say that you are there to step in and pick up the ball where McCain leaves it if he can’t continue to do the job of President, that you’ll occasionally have to preside over the Senate on formal occasions, and that you’ll break any ties in the President’s favor, if you really need to. But, whatever you do, don’t scare anyone by making them think that you’d try to get involved in actual legislation or do anything in the administration on your own! They’d compare you to Dick Cheney. And, he’s even less popular than Bush.”
Fortunately, Palin will not be needed in the next administration for any official federal duty. I’m pretty certain of that. But, that doesn’t fix the problem. We need to do better at educating our citizens about the fundamentals of western civilization. If we don’t, then we might lose it.
---* In fact, maybe we should lower the voting age to 16 just so that we can have students register in class and get them in the habit of voting before they leave school. If they’re going to have JROTC at their high school, then they ought to be voting. At least for commander-in-chief.
** Occasionally, the President pro tempore is a gal.