Saving Democracy from the illiterate | Sunday Observer

Saving Democracy from the illiterate

18 July, 2021

“I must study politics and war, that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. My sons ought to study mathematics, philosophy, geography, navigation, natural history, commerce and agriculture in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary and tapestry”.

- John Adams – 2nd President of the United States of America

“Democracy cannot succeed unless those who express their choice are prepared to choose wisely. The real safeguard of Democracy, therefore, is education.”

- Franklin D. Roosevelt – 32nd President of the United States of America

“We won the evangelicals, we won with young, we won with old, we won with highly educated and we won with the poorly educated, I love the poorly educated”

– Donald J. Trump – 45th President of the United States of America

The statements about education made by successive Presidents of the United States of America clearly shows the deterioration of the quality of the people who have managed to get elected to, arguably the most powerful position in the world. Of course, they got elected by majority votes. Perhaps not the simple majority in some cases, nevertheless, the majority count within the accepted system of the country.

The insurrection on January 6, 2021, where an armed group of terrorists attacked the Capital building in Washington DC, chanting “hang Mike Pence”, searching for the Vice President to stop him from certifying the election results indicates the depths ‘dumbing down America’ has reached. Trump was able to pump that group of his followers up to go and attack the Capital since they didn’t even understand the election process. They had no clue about separation of powers, responsibilities of different branches of Government and the constitutional obligations of the Vice President because they had never learned about any of those. They truly believed what their mob leader told them.

Ironically, then 29-year-old Abraham Lincoln, in his Lyceum address in 1838, had warned that: “unless our children are taught reverence for the Constitution and its laws, we might fall prey to “mobocratic” rule”. Even though the word ‘mobocratic’ was coined using the word ‘mob’ it doesn’t necessarily mean that the mob is always spontaneously or randomly generated. It can be Government sponsored civilian mob or even armed forces on the Government payroll as can be witnessed in different countries around the world.

Election is only a minor part

Most people think that Democracy means conducting free and fair elections. Conducting elections to elect suitable representatives for legislative bodies is a small but an important part at the beginning of the implementation of Democratic procedures. This is not unique to one country. Selfish politicians all over the world would like to use the fact that they won by a majority vote as a mandate to end their obligation to be Democratic in any of the subsequent procedures.

A lie doesn’t become the truth, wrong doesn’t become right and evil does not become good, just because it is accepted by a majority. The only way one can recognise a lie, the wrong or the evil is to have the knowledge about what one is faced with. Most of the people are functionally illiterate on their fundamental rights and on the Constitutional principles of their respective countries. Fundamental literacy rate of a country is measured as the percentage of the population over 15 years of age who can read and write, which is over 95 in Sri Lanka.

But that certainly doesn’t say anything about their abilities of understanding all the manipulations they are being subjected to by the politicians and their support base consisting of so-called experts and intellectuals. Therefore, we should not limit our assessments only to fundamental literacy but extend that to all other areas relevant to a trouble-free life of an average citizen.

The Department of Census and Statistics has surveyed and published Digital Literacy and Computer Literacy since early 2000s and they were at 49.5% and 32% respectively by the year 2020. This may even have gone up due to increased use of computers and mobile data thanks to Covid-19 pandemic.

Education to see through lies

But there is no evaluation of literacies in the areas such as: media, civic and social science, cultural, financial, health and legal. If one goes to a service provider without knowing what one’s rights are as the receiver of the service then, one may not get the best service he or she is entitled to, irrespective of whether it is in the State or private sector. Therefore, it is extremely important that the country considers improving the literacy rates in all such areas as a priority in its education policies.

In almost all education systems around the world civics has been given less priority than Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM), increasingly so during the past few decades. Prioritising those areas certainly is important for the development of the physical world.

But without a basic understanding of our rights, responsibilities and duties as citizens living within a framework of a constitution and a legal system and accepted norms of a social, cultural, ethical and moral value system, none of those advancements we make in our physical world will not grant us a peaceful life. More often than not, the peace is disturbed not due to lack of physical and or technological development but due to inefficient and undemocratic policy decisions the rulers make based either on their selfish motives or on illogical advice provided by the experts they consult.

It is not realistic even in developed countries to expect every citizen to be knowledgeable enough to steer his life safely through the political, financial and social and legal minefields. Therefore, the true intellectuals in a society could render their services in improving the literacy rate of the citizens in the areas such as media, civic and social science, cultural, financial, health and legal rights and obligations while helping the elected officials make efficient, wise and Democratic decisions.

When most of the citizens are literate in these areas and have a better understanding of Democracy then, they will be able to elect most suitable people to their legislative bodies to represent their best interest and keep the system from sliding down to a ‘mobocracy’. Here again the education is the key to install these valuable qualities in people where they will understand the duties, responsibilities and the rights of a citizen in a Democratic nation. That is perhaps why George Bernard Shaw had once said: “Democracy is a device that ensures we shall be governed no better than we deserve.”

The writer has served in the higher education sector as an academic over twenty years in the USA and fourteen years in Sri Lanka and he can be contacted at [email protected]