On Civic Knowledge and Education

January 17, 2018

An English King, leaving the confines of his palace or place of rule, may venture into the more indigent communities of his realm—the nearby “Cheapside” or those working class villages which lay at the outskirts of the capitol—and he may observe his subjects therein with consideration of how the least of his citizens might contribute their voices to the welfare or prestige of the kingdom. He will recognize that while these subjects represent the true moving parts of his economy and the power derived from it, their customs, manner of speech, and assumed disregard for literacy should exclude them from knowing or participating in the civic affairs of Mother England. James Madison and (most of) his contemporaries understood this as an injury inflicted by the King upon his subjects—or a tyranny.

    This tyranny of the minority describes any occasion on which a minority—or exclusive segment of the population holds primacy in that entity’s decision making and by extension, its laws and civic character. In Federalist 10, Madison refers to this phenomena as “faction… a number of citizens united by some common impulse or passion, or of interest, adverse to the rights of other citizens or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.”

    Regarding the princes of Europe, such “primacy” was derived from the population’s collective willingness to be considered as subjects only, and this because the majority possessed not the faculty, nor the means to challenge the central premise of the ruling authority—that these unlimited powers had been ordained by God Himself. Here, this collective willingness is not a question of will, but of access, though the absence of the latter deteriorates the former. Monarchs and autocrats have been keen to this since before antiquity, aware that even before military might and the culture of fear could be made effective in subjugating one’s citizens, control over the distribution of knowledge and the means of obtaining it must be established. Consider Caligula, who upon learning that a greater number of the empire’s citizens had obtained some modest literacy, determined to publish Roman law in fine print in order keep them “on their toes.”

    The Roman Church used illiteracy and lack of civic education similarly, retaining the true word of the scriptures in the language of the educated—Latin and Greek—creating instead stained glass windows to convey the scriptures in a manner that was far more benign and resistant to dispute, and most importantly, could reveal nothing of the gross hypocrisies of the church hierarchy itself.

    Looking again at Federalist 10, Madison defines two methods of “controlling the mischiefs of faction… the one by removing its causes; the other, by controlling its effects.” He further describes the means of doing so by issuing, as it were, all persons the same understanding and opinions, ensuring that no diverging passion gets the better of another, a social condition he assures would be “impracticable” on the grounds that human beings are fallible in the use of reason, and as long as they were at liberty to do so, differing opinions would reign free and eliminate the power of a minority to influence mass perception. Clearly the notion of our modern social media’s unwarranted influence in this respect would not have been dissimilar to the opiate served up by European counter-reformationists; bonds from which the colonies had escaped by embracing the values of the Enlightenment.

    Prior to the Enlightenment, the values of which remained unpopular which Europe’s ruling classes at the time of our nation’s founding, education, civic or otherwise, was reserved for promising members of the clergy or for select members of the ruling class in order to prepare them for a lifetime of devotion, executing the will of the Vatican or enforcing the King’s law. In such an autocracy, civic education for the masses was considered a recipe for uprising, as only through such learned knowledge would self-evident truths be exposed. And so when our founders sought to bring about a new nation governed by laws belonging to the people, the necessity arose for the first time in human history to produce an educated citizenry by (relatively) unexclusive means. They understood that to do otherwise would threaten any notion that such a fragile republic based on representative government could endure beyond a few short years. The alternative is still in evidence across the world today, where brave souls struggle to build schools for their nation’s children while government thugs burn them to the ground and execute the perpetrators for treasonous acts.

Given the historical context I have described here, the present lack of civic knowledge and education in a republic where it is freely available should be considered not only tragic, but reckless on the part of all. Nevertheless, I would offer this to consider: autocracy and dictatorship are in fact easy in their demands on the individual citizen. There is little or no civic knowledge required, only the tranquility of acceptance and the natural ability to experience fear. Disparity in political power is born in this way, which is precisely why the founders of the new republic envisioned a vast public education system to prepare citizens from youth onward to become active participants in a system of self-government. Being an American is something to be learned and then practiced, practiced and reexamined, reexamined and redirected. This process forms the basis of the most advanced form of citizenship ever devised, and it is ours to make to make use of—the King be damned.

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