The Case for Civic Engagement

I published an opinion piece in the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle today, “The Case for Civic Education.”  I argued that one possible explanation as to why so many of Donald Trump’s supporters have accepted his trampling upon the Constitution is because too many Americans are unfamiliar with the country’s basic institutions, its history, and what the Constitution says.

I believe strongly that historians, and other academics, should engage the public.  We should write in defense of our disciplines.  We should advocate for our disciplines.  We should preach from the highest hills that history education, and education in the liberal arts and humanities generally, is vital to the functioning of a democratic republic because it equips citizens to participate in a mature, reasoned, and constructive manner.

The essay has drawn a bit of fire, but not nearly as much as I would have liked. I want to argue about these issues, and I want to have a debate.  So I will write.  It is the best way I know to engage with a broader public, to at least provoke some thought.

Alas, the D&C wants its opinion pieces short, 450 words, so there is not a lot of room to elaborate.  And for inexplicable reasons, the editorial staff decided to cut out the opening paragraph to the essay, despite the fact that I submitted a piece that came in below their word limit.  Maybe that opening was a bit inflammatory, but I do not think so.  The actual essay reads as follows:


A large minority of the voters who cast ballots last November chose Donald Trump to be their president, a choice endorsed and approved by the Electoral College, that antidemocratic anachronism designed to ensure that slaveholders controlled the national government.

            You have read in these pages many explanations for Trump’s unexpected victory. I would like to add another.  A significant number of voters cast their ballots for a bullying narcissist with little knowledge and less respect for American constitutionalism because they simply do not know enough about the Constitution, America’s political institutions, and the nation’s long struggle, in the Founders’ words, to “form a more perfect union.”  They can excuse Trump trampling over the Constitution because they do not know what the Constitution says.

            Let’s face it: despite a nationwide commitment to standardized testing, the social sciences, humanities, and liberal arts have been under attack.  We need “more plumbers and less philosophers,” said Marco Rubio during his brief quixotic run for the presidency.  The Lieutenant-Governor of Kentucky urged students not to study history but, instead, to focus upon something useful. Even Governor Cuomo, in his otherwise laudable proposal to provide tuition-free access to SUNY schools, promoted the program as a way for the state to produce more skilled workers, not informed citizens equipped to participate in American democracy in a meaningful and constructive manner.

            Education in history and the liberal arts, however, produces citizens capable of asking the tough questions and looking for answers in all their complexity.  They do not settle for simple solutions and pat answers. They know how to question assumptions, and demand evidence.  Civic education leads to responsible and mature civic engagement. Little wonder, then, that these fields of study are devalued and dismissed.

            Less than a third of Americans last year could identify all three branches of the federal government.  Another third could not name a single branch.  Many times more Americans can identify all five members of the Simpsons family than the five freedoms protected by the First Amendment. 

            The Founding Fathers argued that a flourishing republic needs citizens capable of displaying the virtue to set aside their narrow self-interest and petty fears and jealousies in order to pursue the common good.  They argued that citizens must be independent, informed, and active. An ignorant and quiescent populace, they feared, made fit tools for a tyrant.

            I cannot predict what will happen over the next several months and years. But I have watched the protests. We must do more, I believe, to engage the public, explain how our institutions are supposed to work, and protect them from a presidential administration that threatens the country’s fundamental aspiration of liberty and justice for all.


The evidence to support my assertions is not hard to find, and we should consider this evidence closely.  We have our work cut out for us.  Rick Shenkman, for one example, summarized some of the findings of his Just How Stupid Are We at Alternet.  The Annenberg Center for Public Policy in 2014 released a study in 2014 warning about Americans’ lack of basic civic knowledge.  Jason Brennan’s analysis from 2016 in Foreign Policy raises some points worth considering.  And the American Council of Trustees and Alumni found that American college graduates are “alarmingly ignorant of America’s history and heritage.”

This should disturb us all, regardless of the political party which claims our allegiance, regardless of who we voted for in the primaries or the general elections.  These results are a call to action. The challenge will be mustering the courage to answer that call.

I like to write opinion pieces. It is important for us all to bring our expertise to bear on public debates, and to make our voices heard.  Doing so requires a willingness to take some heat, some criticism that can be really, really vicious at times.  In my view, it comes with the territory. I could fume to my friends on Facebook.  I could bitch and whine or yell at the television set.  Better it seems to me is the effort to engage with as large a public as possible, to challenge assumptions, to offer explanations, and to provoke discussions.



6 thoughts on “The Case for Civic Engagement”

  1. I’ve noticed that your OpEd piece in the Sunday D&C has garnered the expected outpouring of outrage, hypocrisy and knee jerk hyperbole from the Trump Troll community. I suspect that the responses, if any, which you receive from your follow up questions will suffer from the same intellectual defects.

    Oh well, as H.L. Mencken wrote, perhaps with Mr. Trump presciently in mind, “The demagogue is one who preaches doctrines he knows to be untrue to men he knows to be idiots.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Michael. I understand what you are driving at. As an educator, however, I am hopeful, and I have great faith in the power of dialogue. Sometimes it’s difficult to muster, but carry on we must.

      1. I suspect that we agree on a lot, Michael. As for partners in dialogue, that is a tough one, isn’t it? I have limited means and limited time. So I have chosen to write as much as I can, for as many newspapers as I can, and to use this blog to post longer versions of what I submit elsewhere. Hope you will keep reading.

  2. Except that a dialogue requires at least two parties, both of whom are listening. And at the moment all we have are those committed to a liberal/progressive social and political agenda who are basically talking to themselves. No one on the other side is listening.

    Certainly not Donald Trump, with his total lack of practical participation or apparent aptitude for political and governmental affairs, nor even the high-level military training and experience (some of it very political in nature) of Generals Washington, Jackson, Harrison, Taylor, Grant, or Eisenhower. With Trump all we have is a failed CEO too busy listening to his personal demons and engaging in a stream-of-consciousness tweeting to hear what anyone else has too say.

    And certainly not the Breitbartian “alternative fact” media, who’s retrograde, greed is good, agenda should scare the hell out of all of us.

    And certainly not the Trumpsters themselves (troll or otherwise), who demonstrated by the tens of millions last November their total detachment from civility and reality by supporting The Rude, Crude, Lewd Dude for no discernible rational reason. At the risk of over-quoting, the precursors of Trumpsterism were identified four decades ago by Isaac Asimov when he wrote, “There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there always has been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that “my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.”

    So I have to ask Prof. Oberg, who do we carry on this dialogue with?

  3. Well said, Michael. If a preponderance of faculty in History and Humanities marshaled their intellectual resources to push for reasoned dialogue and debate, as you do, we could build public response to the wanton disregard for evidence and care displayed by so many representatives in the current administration, and by all who support alt-right perspectives. Without forthright public response to the dangers stoked by cavalier disregard for history and informed civic engagement – nay, pride in their relegation to ashpits where anti-intellectualism flourishes unchecked, how can values of integrity and honesty prevail? But this you know…
    The profound clashes we currently experience are evident in any number of ways, of course. To take one example, the TV show Hate Thy Neighbor showcases attitudes no longer as fringy or shocking as they once were, except for all the points throughout American history when like-minded perspectives prevailed! But now, we may well ask, who cares? At the very least, historians should…

    1. So good to hear from you Mary, and thanks for responding to the post. It is great to hear from an old friend. How on earth did you see the post? We need to keep in touch. I hope you and the family are well.

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