A true democracy relies on having an informed citizenry. Schools can play a key role in achieving this goal by offering regular activities such as discussions of real time news. The need for this is clear. For decades, reports from a range of sources have been telling us how inadequately prepared our population is in this regard. For example, in a study by the National Geographic, more than 3,000 18- to 24-year-olds from Canada, France, Germany, Great Britain, Italy, Japan, Mexico, Sweden and the United States were assessed for their geographic knowledge. Sweden scored highest; Mexico, lowest. The U.S. was next to last.
Robert Pastor, professor of International Relations at American University, in Washington, D.C. summarized the findings with the statement “The survey demonstrates the geographic illiteracy of the United States. The results are particularly appalling in light of September 11, which traumatized America and revealed that our destiny is connected to the rest of the world.” His comments are particularly apt since a National Geographic poll, conducted three years after the Iraq War began, found that only 37 per cent of young Americans could find Iraq on a map of the Middle East.
In another study, Newsweek set 1,000 Americans the challenge of completing their country’s citizenship test. Twenty-nine percent could not name the vice president at the time, and almost three quarters could not correctly say why America fought the Cold War.
In addition, a blind telephone survey of over 1,000 Americans, carried out by the McCormick Tribune Freedom Museum (a museum dedicated to the first amendment), found that more Americans could identify more members of the Simpsons cartoon family than first amendment rights.
As his fans will recall, Jay Leno, the popular TV host of the Tonight show, regularly carried out street interviews (the Jay Walking Citizenship Test) which showed how uninformed our population is about what he called “the real world.” For example, when asked, “What does NATO stand for?” one college graduate replied “New Automobile Dealership Acase.” (If you are interested, many of these interviews can be found on You Tube.)
We could go on and on. The need for improvement in this area is clear and classroom discussions could play a valuable role in making that improvement a reality. However, classroom discussions in this realm will be useful only (i) if teachers are given the training and knowledge they need to guide discussions on “real news” and (ii) if the issues are presented in an interesting and appealing manner. This will happen only if parents or key leaders in our society push to make it a reality.
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