The reason public education was created in the first place was to help us vote responsibly. Jefferson wanted public education “to enable every man to judge for himself what will secure or endanger his freedom.” Schools were to teach every citizen “to read, to judge and to vote understandingly on what is passing.” Well, our report card just came back from the Pew Center and, trust me, it’s a good thing we don’t have to worry what will happen when our Founding Fathers come home. Even though it is all our teachers’ fault.
The ABC’s of political ideology — In the Sound of Music, Maria sings “When you read you begin with A-B-C, When you sing you begin with do-re-mi.” But, what about voting? When you vote, you begin with…what exactly?
You begin with “left” and “right.” You don’t begin with “right” and “wrong,” as our ideologically monolithic mainstream media might have you believe. You don’t begin with “Democrat” and “Republican,” which are political parties holding ideologies that vary over time and among their own members. You don’t even begin with “liberal” and “conservative,” which represent how much change we want relative to the status quo. For example, the monarchy-rejecting Founding Fathers were “liberal” in their time, while those who want to preserve their ideas today are “conservative.”
The concepts of left and right explain quite a lot in today’s political debates. For instance, have you noticed there always seem to be two teams squaring-off against each other, and the people on each team never change? The topics might seem to have nothing in common — abortion, death penalty, drilling in ANWR, guns, health care, immigration, school vouchers, Social Security. But in fact, these teammates do have something in common. They have the same view of how the world works.
In a nutshell, those on the left and right hold opposite views on the capability of Man. Those on the right think of Man as hopelessly imperfect and limited in what he can accomplish. Man is not naturally good, but is naturally selfish. He cannot solve all problems, and it is dangerous to give power to those who tell us they can. If there is an “obvious” solution, it must have been tried before, sometime in history, and found to have had unacceptable trade-offs. Better to let the masses and experience guide us.
On the other hand, those on the left believe Man is perfectible and can accomplish just about anything. And since Man can solve all problems, he must have caused all problems in the first place. So somebody must be to blame for everything, whether it is poverty or global warming. Everything must be fixed, ideally by forcing those who are to blame to make sacrifices. Let the most perfect of us, the best and the brightest, tell us what to do.
What if our schoolteachers spent more time encouraging us to understand and celebrate this diversity of world views, rather than harping on differences in gender and race that they hypocritically tell us we ought not to be noticing at all? We would better understand why we hold the political beliefs that we do and be more capable of developing views on unfamiliar topics. We would also be less likely to label our opponents as na√Øve, stupid, mean, evil, or morally deficient, understanding that they just hold what we consider to be misguided premises regarding how the world works. We could engage in more civil discussions, and perhaps more frequently participate in Jefferson’s preferred process to get to the truth – a multitude of voices competing in a freewheeling marketplace of ideas.
Ideological Illiteracy in America — But according to that aforementioned Pew survey, we’re a nation of ideological illiterates, if not ideological idiots. While most Republican voters did somehow manage to classify themselves to the right of the “moderate” midpoint, it is odd that a candidate with purebred conservative positions like Romney was not labeled “conservative” and was placed to the left of President Bush — anything but a conservative on core issues like immigration, campaign finance reform, and spending.
But the dunce cap these days belongs to Democrats, who place themselves right smack in the middle of the spectrum, apparently believing their views to simply be the correct and most reasonable ones. Yet, think about the position on energy that has been taken by every one of their Presidential Primary candidates. We should block drilling in a God-forsaken part of Alaskan no-man’s and no-animal’s land, despite the environmental triumph of the Alaskan pipeline. We should ban construction of additional nuclear power plants, despite decades of success in Europe. We should bet our entire economy on unproven alternative technologies. And, we should remain silent as freedom-suppressing China begins to drill in the Gulf, and Middle Eastern dictators jerk around our economy. This is a moderate position?
So, “how do you solve a problem like America’s schoolteachers?” Sure, Maria von Trapp may have been a little flaky, but at least by the time her oldest student was going on 17 and still too young to vote, they all knew how to identify and bid adieu to a political ideology that did not fit their world view. Which, if you are a product of our public schools, is more than can be said for yiew, and yiew, and yiew.
Steve Boriss blogs at The Future of News. He works for Washington University in St. Louis, where he is Associate Director of the Center for the Application of Information Technology (CAIT) and teaches a class called “The Future of News.”