The problem with Donald Trump is not Donald Trump. He is a bully and a blowhard, to be sure. He is an egotist who seems unable to see beyond his own wants. He has no experience, no program, no answers, no facts and no democratic instincts. When people ask what his plan is, he explains, “Trust me.”
The problem with Donald Trump is that such an aspirant to the presidency is taken seriously by so many citizens.
The writers of the Constitution worried a lot about the prospect of naïve voters. The architect of the Constitution, James Madison, warned that, without proper education, a democracy would end in “a farce or a tragedy, or perhaps both.”
The solution of the founders was to make general education an integral part of the American system. The United States was the first nation to provide universal education, because it had to be. An educated citizenry was part of the plan.
When the West was settled, Section 16 of every township was set aside for a school. Textbooks like “McGuffey’s Readers” taught students to read the newspapers, but also took the opportunity to instill patriotism with stories about the exploits of George Washington and the genius of the American “melting pot.”
Through the 19th and early 20th centuries, American high schools were virtual prep schools for democratic participation. The most important courses were civics, history, geography and foreign languages, all of which showed students there was a broader world out there.
Important after-school activities included debate, where teachers taught there are two sides to all questions, and also theater, which requires imaginatively living in another person’s shoes. Parents sat through interminable performances of “Julius Caesar,” not for the entertainment, obviously, but because it was healthy for teenagers to memorize Shakespeare’s warnings about the strong-man threat to a republic.
Today, high schools are much larger and budgets for extracurricular activities small. Relatively few modern students have the acculturating experiences students could get in high schools that had only 200 or 300 students. For most kids, after-school activity now means video games and television, perhaps including reality television.
Prior to World War II, the primary emphasis of American colleges was shaping young people to lead a democratic society. When 19th-century Amherst President William A. Sterns declared “character is more important than intellect,” it was a statement that would have shocked European scholars, but it expressed the view of most American college presidents. Harvard President A. Lawrence Lowell said in his inauguration speech in 1909 that it was important to remember that a Harvard graduate’s work was in a society, “and it is in order to develop his powers as a social being that American colleges exist.”
To accomplish this training of citizen leaders, American colleges became self-contained communities with their own ethic of cooperation, which they called “spirit,” and their own campus political competitions, which were spirited. The college campus was a laboratory experience of democracy.
In class, students studied the “liberal arts” – literally education for free people. Courses in literature, music, history, philosophy and the like presented a picture of the whole human prospect and its lessons. Thomas Jefferson himself recommended the study of history in a democracy. He said it would provide citizens with examples that would “enable them to know ambition under all its shapes.”
In recent decades liberal arts courses have been nudged aside by “career skills” courses. Whatever the arguments for these, they unwittingly undermine the old aim of getting students to look past their own personal ambitions to the needs of the wider society.
The latest emphasis in colleges is “STEM” courses – science, technology, engineering and mathematics. STEM courses can be defended on their own merits. But they do nothing to hold a society together. STEM courses were the emphasis of German higher education in the 1920s, when German society collapsed and Hitler took power.
Many observers of the gradual abandonment of citizen education at all levels – among them our former congressman George Nethercutt – have been warning for decades that if we continued to ignore the education of voters, sooner or later there would a crisis.
And guess what.
William Stimson is the author of “Instilling Spirit: Students and Citizenship at Washington State, 1892-1942.”
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