Six months ago, I started a blog…
The aftermath of the 2016 Presidential Election left the nation drowning in anger, frustration, and fear. I couldn’t escape it. It was everywhere. Every time I turned on the television, logged in to Facebook, or even tried to have casual conversations with friends and family, it was all anyone could talk about.
At first, I told myself that the fear was irrational. “Our government has a system of checks and balances,” I told myself. “This system has protected us for the past 230 years,” I said. “Donald Trump is no match for that.” Then came the Executive Orders…hundreds of people detained at airports, thousands marching in the streets in response. And all of a sudden, it seemed that the worst fears of the political Left were beginning to come true. I began watching the news incessantly. This moment in history was too important to miss a single second. I have always considered myself to be a bit of a “politics junkie.” In fact, I’ve been using that phrase to describe myself on Facebook and Twitter for years. After the Election, however, my “condition” grew significantly worse. I found myself checking my phone constantly for news updates; stealing moments whenever I could to watch video clips of my favorite journalists, political pundits and television hosts. I used to wear earplugs at night because my partner snores…loudly, but I decided to start wearing headphones instead so I could squeeze in some extra news clips while falling asleep or if I had to wake up to pee. I know, I know, this behavior sounds pretty obsessive. But I was scared. I was anxious. I had no idea what to do. All I knew was that I had to do SOMETHING.
I taught African American Studies at the College of Charleston from 2008 to 2012, and even though it has been five years since I left, I still keep in touch with plenty of my former students. After the election, I followed their posts on Facebook. I was so moved by their intense emotional responses to the charged political climate. I read along as they tried in vain to explain political facts and realities and reason with people from the opposite end of the political spectrum. I felt their exasperation as they quickly gave up and began blocking and unfriending everyone they disagreed with as the conversations grew more heated. I wept for the death of civil political discourse.
Then I remembered an old Biblical quote that my mother used to tell me when I was growing up every time she wanted to stress the importance of getting my education: “The Bible says that ‘My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge,” she would always tell me with her finger wagging in my face (Hosea 4:6). At the time, I dismissed it as just another lecture from a mother to a daughter. In January, however, I finally realized that it was the key to EVERYTHING.
President Donald Trump is what you get when most of the people who are playing a game don’t understand the rules. The United States of America is a Democratic Republic. This system of government is a combination of two parts: the DEMOCRACY part means that the people govern themselves instead of being ruled by someone else. The REPUBLIC part means that since there is no practical way for over 300 million people to all have their say on every single issue, we elect representatives to represent our interests and make decisions on our behalf. Now, with this in mind, I have two questions for you:
1. HOW THE HELL CAN WE EXPECT THE AMERICAN PEOPLE TO GOVERN THEMSELVES IF THEY DON’T EVEN KNOW HOW OUR GOVERNMENT WORKS???
2. HOW THE HELL CAN WE EXPECT THE AMERICAN PEOPLE TO ELECT THE BEST REPRESENTATIVES WHEN SO MANY OF THEM DON’T EVEN UNDERSTAND THE ISSUES THAT THEY ARE SUPPOSED TO BASE THEIR DECISIONS ON???
After the election, I thought long and hard about just how exactly we as a nation had gotten ourselves into this predicament. I’m not talking about FBI Director James Comey, Bengazi, or Hillary Clinton’s email server. I’m not talking about specific states that should have been visited, or small hands, or “feeling the Bern.” I’m talking about the deep-seated malfunction of our society that allowed us to elect as President of the United States a man who had never before run for any elected office, who clearly lacked a basic understanding of the office that he was running to hold, who has trouble speaking in sentences that would earn a passing grade from a middle school English teacher, and who was literally fending off a line of lawsuits and sexual harassment allegations at the very moment that Americans were entering the ballot box to cast their votes for him. I’m sorry to say that we as a nation have a problem that no Democratic Party listening tour or even organized marches can solve. As a matter of fact, our problem is well beyond partisan politics. It is deep in our bones. It is THE FAILURE OF THE AMERICAN EDUCATIONAL SYSTEM.
The reason Donald Trump can even exist—a 70-year-old wealthy, successful businessman that doesn’t know the most basic facts about politics, the Constitution, or how our government works—is because we haven’t structured our educational system to teach our citizens the basic structures and functions of our government. Somehow we let our arrogance convince us that we do not need an informed citizenry to maintain our democracy. We allowed ourselves to believe that democracy is some sort of birth right guaranteed to us by “American exceptionalism” and requiring nothing from us in return. Donald Trump readily flaunted his ignorance during the Presidential campaign and was rewarded handsomely for it. Have we as a nation considered the possibility that this is because so many voters don’t know the same things that he doesn’t know? I mean, how exactly could they be expected to hold him accountable when so many of them never really understood what they were supposed to be holding him accountable for? It’s hard to call someone stupid for not knowing how to spell a word that you can’t spell either, for example. And of course, in the absence of information, human beings tend to act based on their emotions. So we elected the guy that talked a good game and SEEMED like he would be good at handling important stuff. Unfortunately for us, it turns out that he’s not. Oops!
Once I collected my thoughts, I put them out there for the world to see. I created my blog Citizenship101.info and published my first post “We need a Course on Citizenship—Now More than Ever.” But no one saw it. I tried to advertise the blog on my Facebook and Twitter pages, but at that time the atmosphere was so saturated with amateur political commentary that none of my friends and family could bare to read another post. I was never looking for recognition anyway, so I dropped the mic and decided to go back to living my life.
By this time, I realized that my obsessive news watching was actually a coping mechanism that my brain developed in response to the intense FEAR that I was dealing with. I felt like a puppy fresh from the breeder on the first day in its new home. I was full of doubt and uncertainty, struggling to understand the realities of this new, unfamiliar world that I found myself in. I was afraid of not knowing what was going on in a nation and world where everything was changing so quickly and so dramatically. I was afraid that we as a people had become so divided that we would never be able to work together to rebuild the things that we had destroyed. I was afraid that our President’s next tweet might provide the spark to set the entire world ablaze. The problem with fear, though, is that it can paralyze you. And I didn’t have time for that. I still had a job I had to go to, a partner and a home that I needed to take care of, and a life that I needed to live. So I decided to turn off the news and the social media chatter for a few weeks and live my life. The funniest thing happened: my overwhelming fear subsided, and I was finally able to put things into the proper perspective.
I realized that although I am no longer teaching, my responsibilities as an educator remain. I have always felt that the mark of a good teacher is being able to rise above the malay of the moment and challenge your students to apply the deep thinking, deliberation, and analytical skills that they have learned in the classroom to the world around them. For me, this meant ripping the civics, government, and political science lessons out of our textbooks and breathing life into them right now in 2017. The American government is based on a system of laws, and the Founding Fathers left us incredibly detailed instructions on its various functions in the U.S. Constitution. The complex system of checks and balances that they created is specifically designed to slow down the pace of policy change and prevent any individual from making the kind of sweeping changes that would threaten large portions of the American public. This means that even though President Trump’s agenda may scare some of us, the judicial system has prevented implementation of his travel ban, Congress has failed to authorize funding for his border wall, Obamacare has NOT been repealed, our tax system has NOT been overhauled, and the FBI and several Congressional Committees are investigating EVERYTHING to make sure that no laws are being broken by him or members of his Administration. Now don’t get me wrong. I am not saying that the American Presidency has no power, I am saying that President Trump hasn’t figured out how to wield his power effectively yet because, as we all know, he’s new to this. As he learns, the American people must also learn if they expect to be able to hold him accountable. The Constitution doesn’t allow for do-overs, so short of impeachment, we have 3.5 more years to be vigilant and to prepare ourselves for the next Presidential Election.
One day in March, the craziest thing happened to me: I received a notification from WordPress that someone registered as a contributor to my blog. Then I received another notification, and another, and another. Over the weekend, over 250 people signed themselves up as registered contributors to my blog. And it didn’t stop. It continued at a fervent pace, sometimes nearly 50 new contributors a day. The last time I checked, I had reached 1,815! For a brief moment, I thought I was being hacked! Then, I realized that there are a bunch of people out there who are all just like me: confused, angry, scared, knowing that something needs to be done, but not knowing what to do. You all heard my ideas, and you agreed with me: we DO need to educate our citizens—now more than ever. So this is where the hard work begins. Let’s learn together. Let’s DO something.
I am currently building a catalog of courses that I am converting from my days as a college professor to a format that will be easier to disseminate online. I will make each course available to all of you as it is completed. However, just as in a college classroom, interaction with me and with each other is where a lot of the learning will take place. I want to hear from you! I want to know how you feel about what you are seeing on the news every day and what you think we should do about it. What do you think the American people need to learn? What topics do you want my online courses to cover? Nearly 2,000 of you have answered my call. Help me turn this moment in history into something positive. It doesn’t have to be the END of anything, we can make it our NEW BEGINNING.