Thomas Jefferson is best known as the third President of the United States and the author of the Declaration of Independence. On his gravestone, he marks his three greatest achievements as being author of the Declaration of Independence, being author of the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom and being the Father of the University of Virginia.
Notably, he didn’t put down that he was President of the United States -- something that’s hard to wrap your head around if you haven’t extensively studied Jefferson. Why did he choose to put he was the founder of the University of Virginia? It’s rooted in an essential part of democracy Jefferson admittedly believed the country needed to preserve: the concept of a well-informed electorate. Jefferson thought an educated populace was the best defense of liberty and democracy in the nation he helped cultivate. So, he made the University of Virginia free.
A well-informed electorate is an essential, no -- a prerequisite -- to democracy. Do we actually have a well-informed electorate? It’s debatable.
We’ve actually started to make a mockery over the issue of whether one of the most essential requirements for a proper democracy even exists. For example, back when Obamacare was in the process of being implemented, Jimmy Kimmel went to the streets, asking people their opinions about the Affordable Care Act and Obamacare. We laughed when people had drastically different opinions about the same policy that is known by two names. Our laughter was an impulse. It barely sparked worry within anyone.
I don’t believe the Jimmy Kimmel video -- and others like it -- is an exception. In 2009, the European Journal of Communication surveyed citizens of Britain, Denmark, the US and Finland to answer questions on international affairs. Only 58 percent of Americans could identify the Taliban, even though we’ve lead the charge in Afghanistan. The Danes? Sixty-eight percent. The British? Seventy-five percent. And the Finns? Seventy-six percent. This isn’t an exception -- it’s a trend, and there are a slew of polls to prove that.
So whose fault is it that Americans don’t know what they probably should?
You could blame the news broadcasters. The vast majority of the American public wants to see human interest stories, not substantive ones. It worth noting though, that these networks that report these stories are somewhat obliged to do so -- after all, if they really did an entirely substantive newscast, they’d lose ratings and revenue, and ultimately go broke after their viewers turn to the network reporting what Americans actually want to see.
You could blame the complex nature of American government and politics. The electoral college, the power structure of the Senate and House and the concept of delegates is confusing. It can discourage people to learn more.
You could blame our education system. We have one of the highest levels of income inequality in the developed world, which limits access of adequate education for the very poor. We also have a relatively huge immigrant population that doesn’t speak English well and a large disappearance of dual-language programs despite this. It’s here that I personally believe the problem of an under-informed electorate lies.
Thomas Jefferson was an advocate of decentralized education, meaning the education system is largely run by states. It’s here that many education advocates begin to disagree on his education stance, due to recent statistics and revelations we’ve only been able to obtain in the modern age. As time goes on, it's been proven that a more centralized managed circula usually results in a stronger civic culture and rate of common knowledge. Others argue the federal government having more circula control may be good in theory, but nearly impossible to execute, especially without actually hurting some of the more successful school districts - a reasonable concern. Either way, it's clear that not knowing much about the world wasn’t as damaging as it was before we became so globalized.
The world is too interconnected, now, to not understand how a military coup in Turkey and a presidential nominee who perpetuates bigotry affects America and its place in the world. Our Congress now deals with foreign policy at a much higher rate than even 50 years ago. It’s problematic for different groups and areas of the country to have different levels of information. It can often lead politicians to make choices based on the pressure they receive from people who are under-informed, rather than the advice of experts of researchers.
This isn’t to say the American people are stupid. They’re just under-informed. A lot of people know this. Whether they care to admit it or not – we see it in the support of a presidential candidate promising things that will never become actually policy, in the lack of understanding in the differing experiences of American different cultures and races have and in the lack of information in what exactly is happening in Syria. No matter who you are -- Jefferson, myself, a Senator or a student -- it’s hard to argue this trend isn’t an imminent danger to our democracy.