Education in America
Frazier graduated from the UC Berkeley School of Law. He is currently serving as a judicial clerk in Montana. His views are his own.
The wisdom of the crowd is at the foundation of any belief that democracy can produce a good society. Elections, public forums, comment periods and the like all offer each person the chance to share their assessment of a candidate, issue, or regulation – the aggregation of those assessments determines the outcome. If we did not assume the superiority of the collective, then such a system would serve little societal value. After all, it makes little sense to shape a society around the recklessness of the rabble.
Yet, our collective wisdom is waning – at least with respect to the sort of wisdom that’s required to elect quality candidates, evaluate policy, and meaningfully participate. A whole slew of factors has made us individually more unaware than attentive, ignorant than informed, and foolish than deliberate with respect to our democratic duties. For example, social media surrounds us with sensationalistic accounts of all the “news” you didn’t need to know.
Similarly, the political “news” we read, even from supposedly serious outlets such as the New York Times, is more akin to entertainment than analysis of the issues impacting communities around the U.S. On Monday, January 30, the “U.S. Politics” section of the Times featured a profile on Congressman Matt Gaetz, an article on the man accused of attacking Paul Pelosi, and an update on the key Senate races to watch in 2024. Absent from any of those articles: the substance of governing.
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And, our elected officials accelerate, rather than combat these factors – they spend hours a day making calls to major donors, posting TikToks and tweets for their most fervent and partisan supporters, and issuing press releases intended only to inflame.
Being attentive to the political news of the last weeks would mean you’re well versed in George Santos’s lies and have a running list of where confidential documents have been uncovered. The aggregation of this knowledge would produce little wisdom…
We need to redefine what it means to be “informed” with respect to civic education if this crowd is going to steer our democracy through tumultuous times. How best to combat and counteract the aforementioned factors is beyond the scope of a short opinion piece. Obviously, huge shifts in our business models, information diets, and cultural norms are required to provide “the crowd” with information relevant to its obligation to guide society. However, even if those shifts were to occur tomorrow, until the crowd is willing and able to understand and act on that information better “news” will have little to no impact.
One in five (19 percent) American adults lack functional literacy based on a 2017 study—the Program for International Assessment of Adult Competencies. These adults lack the ability to “make matches between the text and information” as well as to paraphrase or make low-level inferences from that information. Additionally, they struggle to compare and contrast or reason based on provided information. Too many younger Americans similarly lack the requisite degree of literacy to contribute their full wisdom to the rest of the crowd – more than one in four (27 percent) eighth grade students are below a basic reading level, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
All members of the crowd have valuable and necessary insights that add to our collective wisdom. However, unless and until we take the information diet and literacy of the crowd seriously, we will continue to shortchange our ability to make difficult and complex decisions. Advocates for a more representative, just, and equal democracy ought to recognize the need to become champions of literacy. Every American should feel empowered to and capable of thoroughly investigating candidates and causes – that goal will go unrealized until literacy becomes a real priority.
Empty stomachs don’t make it any easier to learn to read. No defender of democratic inclusion should oppose free school lunches.
Tired teachers will struggle to keep students on pace. No proponent of the public’s role should stifle initiatives to train, retain, and support educators.
Short school days will shortchange the wisdom of the collective crowd. No campaigner for civic participation should limit time spent in the classroom.
The wisdom of the crowd is no secret. We reach better decisions when surrounded by other people committed to and capable of serious investigation of difficult questions. Let’s invest in a wiser democracy by investing in the literacy of every American.