If education is one of the major keys to democracy, is the United States susceptible to a fall from democracy?
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Whether the United States is susceptible to decline due to deficiencies in its education system is open to debate. There is no question, however, that the success or failure of a democratic form of government is contingent upon the knowledge of the public of the institutions of government and of the people they elect to run it. One of the most important founders of the United States, Thomas Jefferson, believed fervently that education was the key to the success of the democracy he and his colleagues established. As Jefferson wrote to Alexander Donald in 1788, "Whenever the people are well informed, they can be trusted with their own government; that whenever things get so far wrong as to attract their notice, they may be relied on to set them to rights." Similarly, in an 1816 letter to Colonel Charles Yancey, Jefferson wrote, "If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be."
The United States can be considered to have deficiencies in its educational system. Testing has repeatedly demonstrated that Americans are ignorant of geography and history and deficient in math and the sciences. Whether that relates to voting patterns, and whether those patterns augur ill for the future of the country, however, are indeterminate. One major reason for that is that the United States is not a pure democracy insofar as the public votes on every issue that comes before it. Rather, it was deliberately established as a republic both to protect against the potentiality of an uninformed citizenry and to protect against the evolution of a dictatorship of the majority. As James Madison wrote in Federalist Paper #10:
"If a faction consists of less than a majority, relief is supplied by the republican principle, which enables the majority to defeat its sinister views by regular vote. It may clog the administration, it may convulse the society; but it will be unable to execute and mask its violence under the forms of the Constitution. When a majority is included in a faction, the form of popular government, on the other hand, enables it to sacrifice to its ruling passion or interest both the public good and rights of other citizens."
Public discourse in the United States tends to the extreme, with moderate positions subsumed under the emotionally-charged vitriol of those on the ideological wings. Reasoning based upon objective facts -- or even upon informed analysis -- is rarely reflected in public debates. This educator spent 20 years in Congress watching elected officials ruminate on all matter of issues with nary an objective fact-based argument in sight. That the country continues on its path is testament to its resiliency, but it is worth pondering how long the United States can continue down that road.
The state of education in the United States has considerable room for improvement. One could conclude that a democratic -- or republican -- form of government cannot continue in perpetuity with an increasingly un- or ill-informed electorate. With the Civil War battle at Gettysburg commemorated this month, it is worth remembering President Lincoln's concern that "government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth."
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