The Price of Ignorance

Education in the Modern United States

I tell people that I’m “Green All the Way.” I once voted for Nader, and then I went and joined the army. People wonder at that – they try to classify me as liberal, but aren’t military personnel conservative? Whatever I am, I’m American, with all the privileges attendant to being a citizen of a free country. Being in the army, I can’t really comment on my personal political views, but everyone, I feel, regardless of political affiliation or opinion, needs to accept a few simple truths about the American “way of life.” Unfortunately, the most effective way to disseminate these truths – through free and public education – has suffered in recent years, and our nation will not survive for long without a knowledgeable voting public.

People sometimes disagree on whether we live in a democracy or a republic, and some claim that the Electoral College allows people to be elected “despite” the will of the people. The fact is, we live in a republic – every few years a percentage of Americans make that sacred pilgrimage to the polling station, punch out their chads, and select an even smaller percentage of Americans to create, interpret, and administer our laws. Every day we hear tales of corruption and backroom dealing and ineptitude. Yet, compared to the alternative, it’s quite an amazing system. We could, for example, live in a pure democracy in which all 280 million-plus Americans voted on every key issue affecting our nation. Ignore the fact that our economy would collapse because everyone of working age would be spending well over forty hours a week just trying to figure out what’s being voted upon, and pretend that our children would show studious concern preparing themselves for the responsibility ahead. Maybe, just maybe, those 280 million citizens would accomplish something truly unique, an industrial-scale (working!) democracy. I doubt it, though. More likely, we’d drown in freedom.

Drown in freedom? Is that possible? Yes, I think so. The American system, I believe, isn’t truly a system based on freedom in the popular sense. “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness” [my emphasis] does not promise freedom. The Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, they’re really more of a contract. The people elect their government, and the government in turn creates a safe environment for the pursuit of individual goals. The system isn’t based so much on freedom as it is based on accountability. Americans expect that the government will protect their lives, their property, and their economic well-being. Most people cannot prosper if murderers, thieves, and scoundrels are allowed to run rampant – the majority cannot function if the criminals are allowed the freedom to do whatever it is they want to do. So the government limits the freedom of some in order to preserve the well-being of the many.

But this isn’t an easy balance. Statistics may make it sound simple by always quoting “the majority of Americans.” But there is no single majority – America is divided into countless majorities. Most people favor economic growth, and most favor quality education for their children, yes, but try out the more difficult issues. Should the United States allow “affirmative action” programs? Should we lower the price at the pump by dispensing strategic reserves of fossil fuels? Should we boycott goods from China and Mexico because they’re cheaper than those made at home? Good luck finding a “majority” of Americans who feel the same on all three of these issues. America is, even now, the “land of the free,” and we are individuals with unique and unpredictable opinions. Case in point, look the issue of preserving the nation’s wetlands. Although many Americans feel that the wetlands that have been saved are either under the protection of the Park Service or green-blooded environmentalists, the fact is that many of the nation’s wetlands have been bought up by collections of hunters. Yes, people with guns who shoot animals are buying and preserving some of America’s natural wonders for future generations.

Now, this unpredictability is part of what makes America a great nation. Not the greatest nation – no place on Earth can claim that title – but a great nation. From our colonial days, Americans have had the creativity to build an industrial powerhouse, the world’s first true superpower, and the only one still going strong. But this creativity depends upon education. It depends upon civic responsibility that can only come from awareness, and in this area the U.S. has some serious shortcomings. When I attended high school, my freshman class had over six hundred students. Four years later, at graduation, only two hundred seventy students walked across the stage. Some left to raise newborn babies, some left to work, some were simply invited to leave so that other students could study without being surrounded by young criminals in the making.

Regardless of reason, the young Americans who dropped out of school lost an important asset to their lives – by foregoing their diplomas, they gave up job opportunities that will be hard to make up later in life. But the economic loss, I believe, is relatively small compared to the other loss. By allowing these students to forego diplomas, we as Americans are permitting a cultural darkness to descend over our youth, a darkness that will grow worse in generations to come.

I’m sure “cultural darkness” sounds alarmist. In the past, this claim may have been alarmist, but the modern world is very different from the past to which we are accustomed. In the past, a man who never graduated from high school may have gone to work on a farm or in a factory, and many women in the same position stayed home to raise families. But today is different. Today, we are more interlinked than at any previous point in history. Technology has narrowed the gender gap by reducing our dependence on manual labor. Movies provide moral education when parents do not, political candidates viewed as outrageous by some are heard by all, and nearly anything – anything at all – can be found on the internet. Not that this is bad – it’s not. The Information Age is a natural stage in the progress of modern civilization. But the key to maintaining a civilization in which every man, woman, and child has the potential for a national audience is to ensure that all our citizens accept and promote the basic tenets of our way of life.

This may sound like a moral harangue. It isn’t. When I promote the “American Way of Life,” I limit myself to some very simple elements. Citizens who do not understand democracy cannot vote for it. Workers without job skills cannot work, and students who cannot read have a difficult time learning those skills. Filing taxes, voting, understanding the issues before voting – these are complicated tasks, they are very essential tasks. But let’s examine what might happen if we neglect our responsibilities and allow our children to forego an education. I’ll focus on the economic perspective first.

Let’s start with credit cards. Miracles in plastic. Want that plasma screen TV? No problem. A DVD collection to rival the local library’s supply of books? Also no problem. New computer? Nah, don’t need that – all I ever use the computer for is to play video games and write stupid reports, and I’m ain’t gonna write no reports no more. I’ll just buy a game system for the plasma – the latest one only costs a grand. Yep, put that one on plastic, too. Don’t worry, it’ll get paid off – I got myself a job that pays ten bucks an hour, didn’t even need to finish that history class or write that English paper. What’s that, sign here? And then you give me that cell phone? Yeah, I want the premium plan – you said that’s the best one, right? All I do is sign here, right?

I’m sure you see where this is going. Americans – young Americans – are in greater debt than ever before. Part of this is the result of greedy expectation – as children, Americans are given a great deal of material possessions. However, much of this is also poor planning. We are not teaching our children to balance their checkbooks, and they are paying the price of ignorance. If this continues, we will all pay the price of their ignorance.

Let’s extend this example to the political arena. Let’s look at what happens when these indebted young adults become embittered older adults. We know that they will do all they can to improve their lives. Anything that might make a difference they will try. They will, naturally, go out and vote.

The political campaign begins simply. It’s a grass-roots campaign run by a man promising to build the nation’s economy by “severing the chains of debt” and ensuring that “every American gets a chance.” Tax the rich, give to the poor, and if you don’t have a job, don’t worry – “we’ll take care of you.”

The claims are similar to those for welfare and social security, except that those two programs are meant only for the truly disadvantaged. Originally, they were conceived as temporary measures to ameliorate poverty during the Depression. This grassroots campaign, however, doesn’t aim for temporary measures. It aims for votes. And people who are in serious debt and who lack historical perspective will vote for this candidate. “I don’t see why the rich get everything,” they’ll say – for the truly impoverished, anyone with a job might be considered rich. And what happens if the economy takes a serious downturn? What happens if unemployment reaches twenty percent? Hopefully, people grit it out. Hopefully, those who have will share with those those who do not. But if they don’t grit it out, if people feel the situation is hopeless, just remember that the most votes Hitler ever received was forty-four percent. That’s right, forty-four percent of the vote brought the Nazis to power. In a time of unprecedented upheaval, Hitler provided a coherent message with clear direction – a horrible message, yes, but it was coherent. And this fictional candidate I’ve proposed, his message would also be very coherent – “an easy way out of hard times.” Never mind that the message proclaimed by this hypothetical candidate is essentially communism – it’s hard to understand the dangers of “to every man according to his need” if your voters don’t learn about it in school (and, as a side note, Stalin killed more in his purges than Hitler killed in his concentration camps – nearly twice as many).

When I say that I fear a cultural darkness descending, that is what I fear. I fear masses of people who think with their credit cards instead of their heads. I fear masses who are too concerned with their own problems to understand those of their neighbors. I am afraid of desperate people, people who will give up their right to think in order to follow someone who promises to think for them. “Cultural darkness” may sound alarmist, but it’s not. If we do not teach our younger generations how to think to begin with, if we do not encourage them to attend school and learn as much as they can, then they will be intellectually crippled at the time when intelligent thought is most required – Election Day.

Ryan Edel

January 2006