I am beginning to believe that we, in the United States, have lost the will to civilize ourselves. Most anthropologists, and many historians, will confirm that the “civilized veneer” of all human groups, where that has occurred, is quite thin and fragile, and our current veneer of civilization in the U.S. is no exception.
There has been a lot of talk lately from politicians, pundits, and the media, focused on the common complaint that, “That’s not who we are”, referring to myopic thinking, religious fanaticism, violence and many other ills that plague our existence. This comment also seems to be a knee-jerk reaction to the chaos surrounding the runup to the 2024 presidential election and the more general seeming disintegration of American democracy and society.
The question that no-one seems to be facing is, “Perhaps this IS who we are”. Our civilized veneer has just become thinner and cracked, and that may well be because we are doing very little to preserve it. Again, as I said at the beginning, we seem to have lost the will to continue to try and civilize ourselves. I should add that this contention assumes we are, by nature, uncivilized – an interesting, and perhaps uncomfortable, thought.
One of the main examples, and perhaps the best example, of this dereliction of civic duty, is the neglectful and irresponsible degrading of the U.S. public education system. Education is the fundamental base of any civilization and, in our political sense, the fundamental basis of our democracy.
In the U.S., we have delegated responsibility for educating the fundamental asset of the nation, its people, to a ragtag, disorganized, and culturally biased nationwide series of small, insular, and non-professional school boards. That is a travesty for a nation that prides itself on being a beacon of civilization in the world. It is also extremely myopic and stupid if you view it from the point of view of the country’s future.
U.S. public schools stopped teaching “Civics” and “Government” in 1975. I’m not sure what generated the motivation for this naïve and stupid decision, but it doesn’t really matter where it came from, it has to be reversed. A national curriculum needs to be established for all citizens of the United States. Anything less is a detriment to those citizens, and a destructive element for the nation.
I have to wonder whether the current crop of lunatic-fringe members of the U.S. Congress, on both sides of the aisle, isn’t a result of them learning nothing about civics/ethics, or how their government works, when they were in high school. You could even argue that it is not their fault. Some of them were too young to be in school when that decision was made. So why are we surprised when they only act in their own self-interest.
Lack of education is also the primary driver of the success of conspiracy theories. I was going to add here, and religious fanaticism, but the truth is, faith will defeat education almost every time, regardless of how inane, authoritarian, and illogical that faith might be.
Belief in conspiracy theories, like the “stolen” last presidential election, illustrates a state of mind that can accept almost anything, if it comes from a source you’ve been brainwashed to accept as “gospel”, if you will excuse the expression. Further, that means you are willing to support the concept that violence is acceptable in achieving your political goals, and, further still, that it is acceptable to de-humanize the opposition. That is the classic path to accepting the possibility of dictatorship. At least, until it actually happens.
Perhaps I am saying that losing the will to civilize ourselves is a function of losing our interest in educating the people. It could also be the other way around, but the end result, either way, is a descent into authoritarianism and loss of freedom, not to mention chaos.
Harsh reality, perhaps, but what’s the solution?
The first step would be to abolish the control of school boards, and religious fanaticism, over the public school system. The fact that a student can acquire a far better education in the worst school in New York than in the best school in Alabama, Arkansas, or Mississippi, is a national disgrace. The problem is that if the members of Congress representing those areas don’t understand the problem themselves, how can we expect them to understand it needs to be changed for the sake of the country.
There will be loud screams of “states rights”, “religious freedom”, “parent rights” and many other equally traditional outcries. However, almost none of them will be screams of “student rights”. Students in public schools are the future of the country and they deserve the best education we can give them without the self-centered, myopic and, in many cases, uneducated, screams of these other groups.
I am tempted to add other solutions to the problem of “losing the will to civilize ourselves” but, I believe, public education is by far the most important. If the U.S. is going to survive, let alone maintain its leadership in the world, it should start thinking like a nation and not just a collection of semi-autonomous communities, whether they be states, townships or school board districts. I shall return to this theme again and again.