OPINION: If the last five years in American politics have taught us one thing it is that we can all use a refresher course in civics
This op-ed was co-written by theGio’s April Ryan and former Education Secretary Arne Duncan.
If the last five years in American politics have taught us one thing it is that we can all use a refresher course in civics. The events of January 6 were only the latest and most extreme illustration of America’s confusion over the meaning of words like freedom, truth and democracy.
One of us is a long-time White House correspondent. One of us is a former United States Education Secretary. Amidst feelings of fear and hope, we’re speaking with one voice today to call on our fellow Americans to relearn the lessons of American history so as to prevent the kind of madness we have experienced since Donald Trump descended that escalator five years ago.
Our children and young people are watching and they rightfully wonder if this experiment we call democracy actually works.
They saw what happened in Charlottesville in 2017 and they heard what the president said. They have seen armed terrorists invade newsrooms, classrooms, temples, mosques and churches and murder journalists, educators, children and worshippers of every faith.
They have seen politicians evade responsibility for lax gun laws. Instead of open, honest debate in our politics, they see the opposite — lies, blaming, fear-mongering and racist dog whistles. And, they saw what happened on January 6 and read the president’s tweets telling the people storming the U.S. Capitol that the election was “stolen” and “We love you. You are very special.”
Civics education would help all of us understand that, for all our noble aspirations, America remains a nation of contradictions, inconsistencies and hard truths. It would remind us that some of America’s first immigrants came here seeking religious freedom, but others came here in chains.
It would remind us that our historic commitment to equality expressed in our founding documents was directly contradicted by slavery. Many of the Founding Fathers we revere were also slave-owners.
It would show us that the same pioneers who tamed the American wilderness and created the breadbasket of the world also slaughtered millions of native Americans with the approval and the assistance of our government.
A national commitment to civics would teach us that the Founding Fathers enshrined our freedoms in law in order to bolster a democracy, not to tear it down. They need to understand how fascist and totalitarian states control information to mislead people so that, when they hear the president describe the media as “enemies” they know he is doing it to avoid answering the kind of tough questions that journalists are paid to ask. That’s why free speech and freedom of the press are guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution.
People need to understand that the founders created three independent branches of government in order to “check and balance” each other. They need to know how those checks and balances failed to hold President Donald Trump accountable when he tried to convince a foreign country to launch an investigation of his political opponent.
We were shocked that 63 million Americans voted for Donald Trump in 2016 — enough to give him an electoral college victory — despite his ignorant, inflammatory words. It’s even more alarming that 73 million voted to reelect him in 2020, knowing so much more about his deceitful and destructive character and his gross incompetence during the pandemic.
Thankfully, a record 80 million voters put Joe Biden and Kamala Harris over the top and a new administration starts on January 20. But the sickness that brought us Donald Trump has not gone away. Just as Sputnik prompted America to get serious about science education during the 1950s, the continuing support for an anti-democratic president should prompt us to get more serious about teaching civics.
The worst thing that can happen is that Americans draw the wrong lessons from the Trump presidency and perpetuate the use of lies, hate and division toward political ends. Even as we write, Trump supporters are plotting their next expression of rage, hate and frustration and craven elected officials from the president’s party continue to court his voters.
The best thing that can happen is that we all gain a greater appreciation of our own role in preserving and strengthening democracy. Ultimately, the rule of law prevailed, democracy worked, and a peaceful transition is now underway. We can never, ever take it for granted.
April Ryan is a long-time journalist and White House correspondent for the Grio.
Arne Duncan was U.S. Secretary of Education in the Obama administration.
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