“We the People…” Over the years we have joked about the irony of a group of wealthy, male slave-owners laying the foundation for a radically representative form of government. Idealistic as they may have been, the most enlightened of them would fall far short of our modern standards of inclusion. But for all their flaws, our Founding Fathers were able to acknowledge their limitations in predicting human progress and they produced a fluid document allowing future generations to extend the benefits of Democracy to the masses.
I believe in Democracy. I believe our government is at its best when the largest number of people are able to understand how it works, access its resources with minimal struggle, and make informed decisions when choosing their leaders. As our ideals have progressed, so has our government, opening the doors to more and more participants. We have seen the abolition of slavery. We have seen the right to vote extended to common man, minorities, and women. We have seen legislation and court decisions aimed at breaking down the barriers that stood between citizens and their equal access to the benefits of our society. We are still extremely flawed, but we have a set of laws that puts the ability to fix these flaws lies at our fingertips.
While it should be acknowledged that legal exclusion still occurs, the larger challenge in our modern society is that of ignorance. The invention of the internet ushered in an age of information. Today it takes me seconds to access information that allows me to play an informed role in my government. Unfortunately, the Internet Age has become marked by the rampant spread of misinformation. Technology has increased at a greater rate than our collective ability to make sense of it. In light of this overwhelming flood of media, many of us have simply given up. Some decide to simply choose to believe the sources that most match their emotional worldview. Others throw up their hands, choosing not to vote or voice their opinion in a system that they believe to be beyond their ability to understand. This apathy has been exploited by high ranking elected officials and others looking for financial benefit.
As a social studies teacher part of my job is to give my students an adequate understanding of how the American government works. I am preparing them to play their part in Democracy. When they vote they will know how the votes will be counted and they will understand the job description in question. They will know how to petition their elected officials to advocate for change. They will know their rights when they are pulled over in traffic. They will be able to identify reliable sources and differentiate fact from opinion. They will demand an equal role in the process, regardless of race, sex, or social status.
This is the job of social studies teachers all over the country and most of us believe that our students have a better grasp on how the government works than the average American adult. But learning does not end when we turn 18. We should be exploring ways to increase the public consciousness of government literacy. Perhaps that is through continuing education courses for adults or advocacy within our community. I have a lot of thoughts on different ways to proceed and I’d like to explore some of those over the next few months, particularly as we move toward what may be the most important presidential election of our lifetime. I’m hoping I can inspire a few people to help me defend Democracy along the way.