The ISI found that passive activities, such as watching television (including TV news) and talking on the phone, diminish civic literacy. Actively pursuing information through print media and participating in high-level conversations -- even, potentially, blogging -- makes one smarter.
The ISI insists that higher-education reforms aimed at civic literacy are urgently needed. Who could argue otherwise? But historian Rick Shenkman, author of "Just How Stupid Are We?" thinks reform needs to start in high school. His strategy is both poetic (to certain ears) and pragmatic: Require students to read newspapers, and give college freshman weekly quizzes on current events.
Did he say newspapers?! Shenkman even suggests government subsidies for newspaper subscriptions, as well as federal tuition subsidies for students who perform well on civics tests. They could be paid from a special fund created by, say, a "Too Many Stupid Voters Act."
Not only would citizens be smarter, but also newspapers might be saved. Announcements of newsroom cuts, which ultimately hurt quality, have become routine. Just this week, USA Today announced the elimination of about 20 positions, while the Newark Star-Ledger, as it cuts its news staff by 40 percent, lost almost its entire editorial board in a single day.
In his book, Shenkman, founder of George Mason University's History News Network, is tough on everyday Americans. Why, he asks, do we value polls when clearly The People don't know enough to make a reasoned judgment?
The founding fathers, Shenkman points out, weren't so enamored of The People, whom they distrusted. Hence a Republic, not a Democracy. They understood that an ignorant electorate was susceptible to emotional manipulation and feared the tyranny of the masses.
Both Shenkman and the ISI pose a bedeviling question, as crucial as any to the nation's health: Who will govern a free nation if no one understands the mechanics and instruments of that freedom?
Answer: Maybe one day, a demagogue.
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