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What if most people are less well-informed than necessary for a free democratic society?

08 Aug

Was listening to a piece on CBC Radio “Ideas” that touched on surprising research findings several decades ago that the average American citizen wasn’t very bright, not bright enough to make informed, reasonable decisions in a democratic society. The conclusion being that manipulation was much more effective, a continuation of the techniques used to keep folks backing WWII efforts and getting men and woman addicted to smoking. In the case of the progress of democratic society, a benign manipulation along the lines of the well-informed and visionary direction chosen by the intelligent few. The invisible government, I think they called it.

Tonight as I finish up making a small dent in the housework I’ve neglected in favor of a volunteer sewing project for my daughter’s 4-H club, I sadly acknowledge that it’s still true, if not more so. I didn’t want to see it that way. For some reason all these years I’d been focusing on the immorality of corporate and government leaders in using the media to spin the news, cultivate brand loyalty rather than intelligent debate, and cultivate an image that instills confidence, rather than being informative, objective, and open to the wisdom of folks living in actual communities. Then as I considered the thought that most people just aren’t very smart, it was like turning to face another ugly truth that had been there all the time. No, it’s not a surprise. I know I’m on the continuum, aware that I so often don’t get things, don’t know enough, don’t articulate well enough, to contribute to the building of a better and more just world. Yet I’m told I’m highly literate, intellectual even, know lots about lots of things, have a good mind. Which is scary, because when I read some classic nineteenth century British or Russian novel, or Roman speech, I’m struck by the beautiful complexity of ideas, the rich vocabulary (even in translation) compared to many prize-wimnning best sellers today. I mourn the loss, wish I could emulate that style. Who can teach me? How hard must I work, and how will I find the space in my life?

What got me looking back at the idea that people just arent’ smart enough for true democracy was listening to my daughters and their friend giggling over YouTube videos in their bedroom on their smart phones. On for ten, fifteen minutes, more. I felt the sadness, the frustration at my seeming inability to pass on even what little I have of love of great literature, appreciation for good reasoning and communication in the service of humanity. I made the mistake of knocking and entering, making some comment on the stupidity of the content they were streaming in a flavor of lament. My daughters’ gaze hardened and the eyes of the guest looked surprised.

Today in the van, energized rather than fatigued, I was able to take a more positive approach with my daughters: making observations, even showing appreciation for a discerning consumption of pop culture, in order to study and consider, question and analyze, judge and discriminate, separate false from true. What online content do we create? What do we access and pay attention to, and why? How does it all affect us–differently for different people? In what direction are we being influenced to go, by whom or what force, and is it a worthy direction? What is lost? And so on.

Again that intense pull to get back into teaching. One area where I don’t feel discouraged about the “one starfish” scenario, knowing the explosive nature of education, of nurturing wisdom in even one student a year. It would be worth it. It is worth it. Proverbs 8:11: “For wisdom is far more valuable than rubies. Nothing you desire can compare with it.

 

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One response to “What if most people are less well-informed than necessary for a free democratic society?

  1. jdawgsrunningblog

    August 9, 2014 at 6:29 am

    You have an edge—and it is worth embracing! Rock on–even with all those grains of salt manufactured by so-called popular culture.

    Great piece of writing–on its own–without judgment or comparison to those from other realms and generations.

     

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