• Uninformed public
    August 13,2014

    A democracy such as the one we cherish here in the United States performs most effectively when the citizens it serves are well informed about the issues of the day.

    Thus, those in charge of the country’s school systems, public or private, are responsible for far more than simply preparing young people for rewarding (financially, especially) careers, although at times it appears many parents think that should be their main purpose.

    For our nation’s sake, our young people must also be prepared to contribute to the preservation and yes, even the improvement, of our precious democracy.

    Students who have been taught how to think clearly and, it is hoped, analytically, will not only be better prepared for a career in whatever field they choose (or, by sheer chance, find themselves in), but also to be good citizens capable of making informed decisions on Election Day.

    In today’s complex and risk-ridden world, it is increasingly important that students be encouraged to develop an interest in and an understanding of the world that lies far beyond their personal experience. Yet there are worrisome signs that this is not happening to the degree that will ensure the long-term success of the United States in such a world.

    Columnist Charles Blow, writing in The New York Times this week, lamented the lack of knowledge shown by the American public at a time when half the world is in turmoil and when decisions made by our political leaders have such far-reaching consequences.

    Blow cited the “thoroughly depressing” answers to a new survey (by NBC News and the Wall Street Journal) of the American people’s knowledge of how their leaders are dealing with the multiple crises afflicting our world today.

    Whether it is the ruthless behavior of the Islamic jihadists in Iraq and Syria, the bitter struggle between Ukraine and Russia or even the seemingly never-ending hostility between Israelis and Palestinians — three hugely important and highly publicized conflicts — the survey’s results were worrisome.

    At least 32 percent of the respondents to the survey said they didn’t know enough to have formed an opinion about these topics. In fact, 42 percent confessed to their ignorance of the situation in Syria.

    “More Americans need to be more engaged, because these conflicts are complicated,” Blow wrote. “There are no easy answers. Sometimes there will be no clear choices between good guys and bad guys but only choices among lesser demons ... sometimes nobility and savagery coexist.”

    In Blow’s view, “we have a responsibility to stay abreast of the conflicts in the world so that we can support or reject our leaders’ efforts to navigate them.”

    Absent this awareness, he continued, it becomes inevitable that “the war machine and warmongers who have never seen a fight they didn’t want to join” are ceded more power.

    President Barack Obama is being criticized for his limited response to the advances of the Islamist extremists in Iraq and Syria.

    Is the criticism fair? Or might those who advocate a greater American intervention be arguing on behalf of their own partisan political interests?

    (There aren’t always easy answers to such questions. For example, is Hillary Clinton’s very visible disagreement with Obama on the intervention issue designed to enhance her own chances of succeeding him, or is it genuine?)

    “Whatever our politics, we must at least make an effort to know enough about the issues to take a position,” Blow commented.

    He’s right. If the American people are well informed, their opinions will matter and when they cast their ballots, they will do so wisely.

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