Online education is allowed in the US

Political Education in the USA : Clueless and left behind

William Collins Donahue is Cavanaugh Professor of the Humanities at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana. The Germanist also heads the
Initiative for Global Europe at the Keough School of Global Affairs. Tilman Schröter and Gregor Dotzauer translated his text from American English.

Forty years ago I worked for a polling company in Washington, D.C. At the time, I was not motivated by any civic or political involvement, I was just a student who wanted to earn some pocket money. The script called for the names of the current president and vice president to be found first - at the time, they were Jimmy Carter and Walter Mondale.

But that was already too much for one of the people I spoke to, who I still can't get out of my head to this day. “My goodness,” she said in a trembling voice, “I don't know. I think I knew the last two, but I'm not sure who is at the helm now. "

Embarrassing failure

She paused to think, but didn't think about it. She was audibly embarrassed to fail on the most basic civic survey. But she explained to me that she really wanted to help, but with all the work on her farm, she didn't have time to follow politics as closely as she would like to. "Could we go on and come back to this question later?"

From my employer's point of view, I probably went too far in telling her that I could understand her. And I really did. Because I phoned people in rural northern Michigan, a region I had known from childhood because my parents had bought an abandoned school there and converted it into a summer hut, a poor wooden building with no running water that consisted of exactly one room .

As a child I got to know the routine of life on the farms there: playing was allowed, but only after the work was done, and because the cows had to be milked in the morning and in the evening, we never had a real vacation.

Playing hide and seek in the hayloft

Freedom meant walking to the neighboring farms, where my five siblings and I spent countless happy hours. We played hide and seek in the hayloft and outside among the tombstones of the local cemetery. Despite the signs that forbade us to do so, we swam in the ice-cold water of a gravel pit lake. The ice-cold water was only bearable because we always came so sweaty and dirty from harvesting beans, milking or the hay press.

So while listening to the woman on the other end of the line, I couldn't help but imagine Mrs. Guza, the mother of our farmer friend, who, when we stayed there, toasted us with eggs and piles of homemade baked goods after doing all our morning chores Supplied bread. She herself worked non-stop until dinner, which only ended when we had neatly pushed our chairs under the table and knelt to say the rosary.

She and the girls started with an “Ave Maria” until the deeper voices of Mr. Guza and the boys came in and took over the second half (“Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death, Amen"). After that we only had the strength to fall into bed.

Reminder with a smile

So when was the Michigan woman I came across to brush up on her political skills? She stuck in my mind over the years because of her mixture of kindness, dignity, and yes, ignorance. Her honesty still puts a smile on my face, but her ignorance also gives me a queasy feeling.

One of my compulsory courses at Georgetown University that year was Political Theory, and I wondered if some philosophers notoriously suspicious of democracy were ultimately right. Are “the people” ready for this? Who else in the country was like this woman?

Questions that nobody dares to ask publicly who does not want to be regarded as a monster. Liberals in particular regard them as abhorrent. Assuming a minimum of political knowledge for successful democratic participation is taboo, because it affects the class differences that have made Americans uncomfortable since the country was founded.

That night, at the desk in my expensive private university dormitory, I pondered all these subjects while the Michigan woman, I imagined, had long since fallen into bed. The concern about political ignorance is seldom examined; rather, it provokes loud contradiction. What, you want a reading and writing test? How dare you? (For the record: No, I don't want that.) What, you're assuming that education goes hand in hand with democracy? (Here I would think of all the doctoral degrees of the NSDAP greats.) Or also: Are you really so naive as to believe that political education would reduce defiant partisanship? (Again: No.)

Incorrigible elite thinking?

Most damnable, however, would be considered to be the way in which the question is used as evidence of the fact that the questioner pays homage to an incorrigible elite thinking, i.e. is an enemy of democracy and distrusts the innate wisdom of ordinary people. To even speak of ignorance that is not one's own shows bad manners, if not worse.

In private, with a beer, you can get people to acknowledge the problem, especially if you formulate it euphemistically. So we try to speak of a “lack of civic education” instead of ignorance. My liberal friends assure me that this is a mere symptom that will go away on its own as soon as we tackle the big questions of our time: the destructive influence of money in politics, or the monster of the "shareholder" - Capitalism, that neoliberal incarnation of what has brought us unprecedented prosperity and equally unprecedented income inequalities.

I would simply shout to this group: Bravo! Indeed, let's go back to a social market economy and get to know the difference between the social and the socialist along the way. But in the meantime, couldn't we also try to eliminate the educational deficit? Has our addiction to finding social causes for everything prevented us from taking pragmatic remedies?

Voter hostility

The much more insidious attempt to stifle all discussion comes from the right as represented by Trump. If the complaint of the widespread civic education deficit is indisputable evidence of class superiority among liberals, it becomes a useful driving force for inciting voter hostility.

It is a familiar ploy in American politics to fuel class antagonism on the one hand and to negate class differences on the other. When liberals attempt to address social injustices, they are branded as instigators of a “war of the classes,” while tax breaks, favored by the extremely wealthy, are sold as a boon for all Americans.

Democrats who advocate gun safety and reproductive health rights are dismissed as the “coastal elite” while affluent Republicans who are “elite” on any scale insist on being ordinary Americans. So as much as we want to get rid of the question of how people with little or no understanding of our democracy can participate in it, it remains with us. Like it or not, the core issues America faces today require a minimum of civic education.

The constitution sets the framework

One cannot argue about reforming the electoral body, which could once again turn the general vote on its head if one has no idea what it is. Debates about the right to arms must proceed from a basic understanding of the nature of the constitutional amendments.

The right to own guns is no less vulnerable than prohibition, which was both introduced and abolished by a constitutional amendment. Basic discussions about the layout of electoral districts and the exclusion of certain voters must also be anchored in accordance with the constitution.

Perhaps most importantly, everyone needs at least a rudimentary understanding of the separation of powers. Trusting no one to see through it, Donald Trump repeatedly blamed Hillary Clinton for every failure by the central government in the 2016 presidential debates. After all, according to Trump, "she was in government and couldn't get it done." Knowing what the constitutionally assigned State Department responsibilities that Clinton held at the time probably wouldn't have caused a change of heart among voters, but it would at least have resulted in a more honest debate. Since taking office, Trump has undermined our democracy by exploiting our ignorance about it.

In 1938 Thomas Mann toured the United States and reassured his audience that "America needs no teaching on matters of democracy." Even as flattery, this line could not possibly be uttered today. Too obviously it contradicts a widespread ignorance that has proven itself to be a valuable tool for dividing politics and, therefore, is not something that Trump actually wanted to get rid of.

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The woman I spoke to forty years ago was important to her country. Perhaps when a teenager called from "our nation's capital" she thought she had to do her duty. She wasn't proud of her ignorance. We should give her a chance to do better. The idea that democracy is something that runs in America's blood is a simple-minded assumption. For too long we have believed that shared myths - such as being a country of migrants - could compensate for a lack of conception of constitutional order.

We see now that that is no longer true, if it ever did. “Constitutional patriotism”, this colossal term coined by Jürgen Habermas to help post-war Germans to shed the idea of ​​ethnic affiliation to the nation, is something that Americans desperately need. Because no matter how many flags you wave, you can't really be patriotic without basic political knowledge.

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