The central virtue and flaw of democracy is it relies on an educated citizenry. If education is lacking, a democracy is forced to rely on a potpourri of myopic, ill-informed whims. Recently, in fact, a woman in her early twenties told me that she was “proud to know nothing about politics and history.” That mindset undermines a well-functioning democracy.
When citizens are uninformed or apathetic, they are more likely to fall for the cheap tricks of demagogues and power-hungry politicos who promise the moon when the going gets tough. Government power-grabs are best prevented by an educated population–not even an “elite,” for the ideal of democracy is that it will rest on a generally educated society. If the number of educated citizens shrinks to a negligible proportion of the populace, then the foundation of democracy creeks and crumbles.
Unfortunately, Western democracies have failed to foster well-educated societies, particularly in the form of civic education. During the Brexit referendum campaign, for example, I met people who thought voting Leave meant leaving the United Nations. Ignorance knows no bounds.
Some people are criticising Governor Gary Johnson, the Libertarian Party candidate for President, for not knowing that Aleppo is a city in Syria. There is no excuse for him, as a presidential candidate, not knowing, but if I were to walk down the street, I would be shocked if 10% of the people had a clue that Aleppo is a city in Syria, let alone where Syria is on a map.
What is one solution to this? Social media. Yes, that’s right, social media. The attention span of most people (especially young people) is almost as horrendous as that of a goldfish. Sharing videos and photos on Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, and Twitter is a way to get any sort of current information into the heads of people these days.
It is a sad state of affairs, but it is where we are. Long gone are the days when most people of the West cherished meaningful education. Ask someone about a Housewives of New Jersey episode, or whether or not the Cubs will win the World Series, and you will have a firestorm of a conversation. Ask someone about Austrian economics, non-intervention, or Greek philosophy, and they won’t have the faintest idea what you’re talking about and they certainly won’t care.
How do we address this? A complete overhaul of the education system. Government should not be in the business of education to begin with, but it’s unrealistic to think that will end any time soon. One small step would be to guarantee education remains a state or local concern, ensure that voucher programs are promoted, and introduce more online courses for youth to have more individualized learning options that play to their strengths. Voucher programs increase competition. When standards are poor in one school, the parents can decide to send their child elsewhere. Naturally, market forces come into play, and schools are forced to adjust to the benefit of students.
If the current education trajectory is not changed soon, then this situation will deteriorate by immeasurable proportions. Ignorance is not conducive to healthy democracy, so why aren’t we doing more to change course?