Retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor acknowledges a joint session of the Florida legislature before delivering an address on civics education on April 7, 2009 in Tallahassee, Fla.

I recently had the pleasure of speaking about the ongoing radical aspects of the Declaration of Independence on an amazing podcast that warrants familiarization by all Americans. Civics 101, produced by New Hampshire Public Radio and hosted by Hannah McCarthy and Nick Capodice, is a refresher course on how America’s democratic government attempts to pursue that “more perfect union.”

With its title and mission synonymous, Civics 101 strives to elevate our public discourse to a level that puts all of us at the same starting point. That doesn’t mean that we cannot draw different conclusions based on the facts, but the responsibilities and engagement of citizenship should not change.

Upon retiring from the Supreme Court, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor made teaching civics a life passion. During her days on the Court, O’Connor became aware that complaints about certain decisions were rooted in ignorance about not only the Court, but also how the overall system worked.

In 2008, O’Connor co-wrote a column with former Rep. Lee Hamilton. They offered, “civic education has been in steady decline over the past generation, as high-stakes testing and an emphasis on literacy and math dominate school reforms. Too many young people today do not understand how our political system works.”

But it’s not just young people; civics is taught largely through osmosis in America. A 2015 survey conducted by the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania found that only 36 percent of adults could name all three branches of the U.S. government; 35 percent couldn’t name even one. Only 27 percent of respondents knew that it requires a two-thirds vote of the House and Senate to override a president’s veto, and 21 percent wrongly thought that a 5-4 Supreme Court decision must be returned to Congress for reconsideration.

O’Connor noted that complaints she had received were rooted in civic ignorance, in many respects, and were reflective of a desire for a predetermined outcome. But myopic focus on the outcome can blind one to the process, which is equally important. Attention to the outcome can oversimplify the complexity of America’s project. This reflects the subtle manner in which death by a thousand cuts is organically woven into the American framework.

Civic ignorance was recently on display when President Trump claimed that he could end birthright citizenship by issuing an executive order. There should have been a collective condemnation offering that the executive branch cannot override a constitutional amendment with an executive order. Nor, as some have offered, could it be done through the legislative branch. Instead, the Constitution requires that an amendment be proposed either by the Congress, with a two-thirds majority vote in both the House of Representatives and the Senate, a constitutional convention, or by two-thirds of the state legislatures.

Like a great novel, the Declaration of Independence and Constitution must be read multiple times, if not annually — a single reading won’t suffice. It must be read and reread so that its meaning can mature with us. It’s not enough to have read the nation’s most sacred documents in high school, memorizing the portion that outlines America’s intention to break free from British occupation, recalling that the words “Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” along with “we the people” and the First Amendment are embedded somewhere in the respective texts.

Civics is where we learn how to be citizens. It is the most effective counter to nihilism and apathy. It is where one acquires an appreciation to paradoxically support issues that we might otherwise oppose, or to not myopically view someone whose social location differs as an adversary.

It is to courageously move away from the destructive ethic of dehumanizing those who see the world differently, while adopting a creed that demands the questions are more important than the answers. Otherwise, the far-reaching implication of the country’s origin loses its radicalism because it is trapped under the unsagacious pressure of black and white thinking.

America doesn’t need more people to obtain college degrees, but it does need a more enlightened populace. Can a nation that deemphasizes critical thinking truly consider itself exceptional?

Only an enlighten populace can be a free people — a people less likely to be engulfed by a post-truth world. A people who are not free cannot pursue liberty and equality in any meaningful way. Ignorance in a democracy impairs the nation. It is, therefore, a contrasting proposition to be a free and ignorant people.

As Thomas Jefferson stated: “Enlighten the people generally, and tyranny and oppressions of body and mind will vanish like evil spirits at the dawn of day.”

Get today’s top stories right in your inbox. Sign up for our daily morning newsletter.

The Rev. Byron Williams (byron@public morality.org), a writer and the host of “The Public Morality” on WSNC 90.5, lives in Winston-Salem.

Load comments