Matthew Rozsa wonders if the American education system is producing good citizens.
As Americans wind down from the 2014 midterm elections (and, inevitably, begin preparing for the presidential contest two years hence), this question deserves special attention. In any society even ostensibly structured according to democratic principles, the intelligence and discernment of ordinary citizens is absolutely essential to the health of the political body. The author of the Declaration of Independence perhaps put it best when he wrote to the father of the United States Constitution:
“Above all things I hope the education of the common people will be attended to, convinced that on their good sense we may rely with the most security for the preservation of a due degree of liberty.”
Instead of using this article to decry the state of American public schools or offer personal commentary on the results of the recent election cycle (both subjects for other articles), I’d instead like to outline five reforms that would do a great deal to realize the ideals of our founding fathers. For those who share their values – or, barring that, needed to look up the identities of the author and recipient of the above quote (Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, respectively) – I especially urge consideration of these proposals.
- Teach Time Management Skills
This may seem like an odd place to start, but studies consistently show that the ability to efficiently schedule and productively utilize one’s time on a day-to-day basis is absolutely essential to professional success (which, in turn, is crucial to good citizenship, regardless of one’s specific profession). In fact, a 2005 study from the University of Pennsylvania even found that this type of self-discipline was a better indicator of academic performance (and from there future socio-economic achievement) than IQ tests. “Underachievement among American youth is often blamed on inadequate teachers, boring textbooks, and large class sizes,” the authors explained, even though plenty of data “suggest[s] another reason for students falling short of their intellectual potential: their failure to exercise self-discipline.”
Although it’s easy to dismiss this “failure” as laziness or poor decision-making, it’s important to remember that healthy time management is a lifestyle that becomes second-nature once it’s hardwired into the brain through repetition. Its main skills include intuitive time awareness, establishing daily routines, learning how to develop realistic and productive “Things To Do” lists and schedules (both day-to-day and long term), and other related habits (a fantastic list was compiled by the Davidson Institute for Talent Development here), all of which can be directly taught as soon as a child begins schooling. Indeed, increasing the number of Americans in each generation who are able to realize their potential would not only create an ideal electorate, but would help America fulfill its promise as a “land of opportunity.”
- Teach A Foreign Language… When They’re Still Young
Just as it’s easier to develop strong time management skills when you’re younger (although they can be acquired at any age), so too is it best to learn a foreign language early in one’s education. Because of the brain’s uniquely heightened neuroplasticity in the period between birth and late childhood, men and women who pick up on a second language during this time have many advantages over those who don’t. Not only is it easier for them to learn additional languages later in life, but they tend to have stronger critical thinking skills (more on that in a moment) and outperform their counterparts on both the verbal and math sections of standardized tests.
Of course, multilingualism is more than an abstract mental exercise. As globalization and the Internet continue to make the world more interconnected than it has ever been before, individuals who can speak another language – particularly widely spoken tongues like Mandarin Chinese, Spanish, Hindi, Arabic, and Portuguese – automatically have an inestimable advantage. Even the non-internationally minded are better off knowing other languages, thanks to the millions of immigrants who flock to America from all over the world, all of whom shape and change American English even as they learn it themselves.
- Help Children Develop Advantage Awareness
I know “privilege” has become a charged word these days, but there is merit to the idea of teaching people to be aware of their inherited advantages. Whether you’re discussing race, gender, sexual orientation, class, physical and/or mental disability, religion, or even personal past trauma, the bottom line is that there are countless socially imposed categories used to give certain groups advantages of others. The ultimate goal, of course, is to render these differences totally irrelevant in determining social, economic, and/or political status. For that to happen, however, people must first be made aware that these advantages exist – and to realize that everyone is impacted by both advantages and disadvantages.
I emphasize everyone because the goal here should not be to shame people who are privileged in certain ways or to encourage the playing of the so-called “Pity Olympics” among those who can claim disadvantages. Although some have more advantages or disadvantages than others, everyone experiences hardships in ways that are unique to them and the result of a “group status” variable that they can’t control; conversely, by simple virtue of the fact that they are Americans, everyone automatically starts out with a huge privilege compared to citizens of countries like Somalia or Afghanistan. For Americans to meaningfully address problems such as income inequality, racism, sexism, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, xenophobia, anti-LGBTQIA prejudice, or the stigmas and struggles caused by serious disabilities, it is essential that they taught at an early age to fight against their socially imposed disadvantages and view their advantages as an opportunity for them to help others in the same way that they want to be helped themselves.
- Logical Argumentative Structure/Critical Thinking Skills/Skepticism
Since it’s common for all sides in a political debate to claim that they’re simply being logical, good citizens need to know how to identify logical fallacies when they encounter them. Much as it’s easiest to pick up on a foreign language or develop time management skills when you’re young, so too would it be best to teach at least a handful of common fallacies to children at an early enough point in their development that they’ll be able to apply that knowledge to their adult life. As a political columnist, I’ve run into more than enough logical fallacies to be able to pick out the ones I suspect are most prevalent, including:
- Ad Hominem Fallacy: When an argument is rejected due to a fact about the person presenting the claim that is irrelevant to the issue under discussion.
- Appeal to Faith/Tradition/Authority: When potential flaws in an argument are dismissed on the grounds that God, tradition, and/or an authority figure supports the position and that it is thus unassailable.
- Argumentum ad populum: An argument that attempts to persuade large groups of people by appealing to their emotions instead of the logic underlying a given situation.
- Begging the Question: A fallacy in which the premise of an argument presupposes the truth of the conclusion desired by its advocate.
- Conflating Correlation with Causation: Assuming that, because two events occurred together, one of them caused the other.
- Slippery Slope: An argument that insists one event will inevitably lead to another without any proof of the aforementioned inevitability.
- Straw Man: A fallacy in which one side misrepresents the argument being made by the other and attempts to win the debate by attacking the misrepresentation rather than the actual opposing opinion.
In addition to these fallacies, American children should be taught the fundamental intellectual approaches used by scientists, including skepticism toward assertions that have not been proved, insisting that all hypotheses be testable (and then repeatedly testing them), and seeking out all information that could disprove a given claim. Not only will this provide them with a foundation for better understanding science itself – after all, simply teaching the existing body of scientific knowledge without understanding how it was acquired encourages the regurgitation of dogma instead of genuine critical thought – but it will give them tools they can apply to the political scene once they are old enough to participate in it.
- Assign Readings That Help Americans Understand Their Own History From An Intellectual Distance
This is not a critique of the entire existing historical curriculum (although there are plenty of valid criticisms to be made on that front), but rather an observation about one particularly serious oversight. Even as American students are encouraged to memorize and regurgitate a wealth of names and dates pertaining to their nation’s founding and subsequent history, little attention is paid to contextualizing this information within the broader paradigm of political theory (save for generic platitudes instilling patriotism and glorifying “freedom”). To rectify that, the following readings should be mandatory:
- “The Declaration of Independence” by Thomas Jefferson and the “United States Constitution” by James Madison: I’ve lumped these two documents together not only because they are the founding documents that created America, but because they alone among the readings included here should be required in elementary school. Children who know the texts of these political masterpieces as well as the lyrics of pop songs will benefit enormously from the familiarity.
- “The Federalist Papers” by James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay: Just as it’s important to be intimately familiar with our nation’s most important political documents, so too should every high school student know the fierce debates that arose during the movement to get it ratified by the American states. Before the passage of the Constitution, the newly-freed colonies were governed by the Articles of Confederation, which many believed did not provide the federal government with enough power to effectively do its job. As Madison, Hamilton, and Jay wrote these 85 essays for the various colonies, they presented a wide range of arguments to justify the new political order drawn up in Philadelphia – even as they expressed opinions that differed from the final document (such as opposing the Bill of Rights) or from each other (such as Madison’s and Hamilton’s different interpretations of the general welfare clause).
- “The Creation of the American Republic: 1776-1787” by Gordon S. Wood: Perhaps most famous for being name-dropped in “Good Will Hunting,” Wood’s classic text explains how concepts like the sovereignty of the people over their legislators, the need to protect individual property rights, the importance of the separation of powers, and the development of judicial review came into being as the American Revolution progressed.
- “The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution” by Bernard Bailyn: Providing valuable context for the ideas in America’s founding documents, Bailyn performs an exegesis on hundreds of political pamphlets from the revolutionary period to trace the origins of the democratic ideology that led to this country’s birth, from the early 18th century Whig libertarianism of English politicians like John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon to classical philosophers like Cato the Younger, various Enlightenment thinkers, English common law, and the Puritans of New England.
- “The Great Challenge: The Myth of Laissez-Faire in the Early American Republic” by Frank Bourgin: This book does for America’s economic history what the works of Wood and Bailyn do for its political history. Debunking the popular misconception that the founding fathers intended for America to have a laissez-faire economy, Bourgin explores the economic policies supported by colonial mercantilists and advocates of central government economic planning, including not only Alexander Hamilton but Thomas Jefferson himself (largely inspired by his Treasury Secretary, Albert Gallatin).
- Atlantic Crossings: Social Politics in a Progressive Age by Daniel T. Rodgers: As the modern era began to emerge in the late 19th/early 20th century, free governments were confronted with a wide range of new problems – and it was during this period that American intellectuals and public servants began a process of intellectual cross-fertilization with various European nations, with each society attempting to benefit from the good ideas put forth by the others. Culminating in the brief period when America led the world in creative democratic policymaking (i.e., during Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal in the 1930s), it teaches the important lesson that American exceptionalism isn’t incompatible with accepting inspiration from non-American sources.
Although The Good Men Project focuses on the changing roles of men in the 21st century and this article talks to both genders, the core point is very much in keeping with GMP’s ideals. Good citizenship is a sine qua non for anyone who wishes to be a good man or good woman; as such, it behooves the American people to make sure the seeds for good citizenship are planted at a very early age in our nation’s youth. If cultivated correctly, they can help future generations become smarter, more productive, more empathetic, and more politically and historically well-informed than ever before.
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Photo: Flickr/US Department of Education