by Bill Schubart If current political events have taught us anything, it’s how vulnerable we all are to misinformation and innuendo. And if 80% of us don’t trust our own government, we must then ask how many Americans even understand how their government works or their own role in a vibrant democracy. Three quarters of Americans can’t name the three branches of government and one third can’t name even one branch. An electorate that condemns its own government without understanding its functions and purpose can hardly be counted on to participate with informed voting and advocacy.
In Morrisville Junior High, we had a civics course that gave us a rudimentary sense of how government worked and instilled in us a sense of our responsibility to participate. Since we got all our news then either from Walter Cronkite or WDEV, we largely trusted what we heard. This formed the basis of how we thought about world and local affairs.
But today, everything has changed and if participatory democracy is to survive, we must get serious about the importance of civics and media literacy in the public-school curriculum. Our democracy depends on citizens understanding how their government works and knowing how to evaluate the myriad sources of reliable information and misinformation available to them.
We’re now at a historic turning point. Young people are experts when it comes to using social media, but they’re dangerously ignorant about the consequences of their own use of it. Cyber-bullying, revenge porn, stalking, and fake news are all dangerous consequences of our misunderstanding of social media. Active on Facebook and other platforms, young people pay little attention to privacy and its importance in a world of relentless and malfeasant hacking and misinformation.
There are many corrosive elements weakening our democracy: corruption, equating money and free speech, but also ignorance of government’s purpose and function and an inability to differentiate fact from political propaganda which could be our democracy’s death knell.
We’ve been warned by writers like Orwell and Huxley in fiction, and by historical figures such as Stalin, Hitler, Putin, and Berlusconi.
The question is: Will we heed the warnings?”
This piece originally aired on Vermont Public Radio.