If we change how we teach children history, we can prevent massive ignorance, the kind that hurts us and our country. Teachers teach history mainly from textbooks. But imparting information doesn’t teach students to think clearly and distinguish evidence from opinion.
When teaching sixth-grade, I included a unit on local government. In election years, we discussed what voters were voting for or against.
One year, the people of Roseville were voting on raising property taxes. If it passed, it meant renovating several school buildings, adding a swimming pool at the high school, improving the parks, etc. After two lessons, every student voted YES to increase property taxes. What they didn’t know yet was the opposing argument.
Lesson three we discussed the impact of higher property taxes on their parents and their grandparents on a fixed income. There was also the question of whether it would affect home values. It was an unknown variable. Their young faces previously full of confidence now expressed sadness and anger. Once a student blurted out, “You ruined the lesson.” Indeed, democracy is not easy. Taking the lesson deeper, I explained the purpose of our constitution, to protect certain inalienable rights and our responsibility to vote.
Students shared that discussions with parents resulted in heated arguments. Parents called me asking why I was teaching communism or socialism. Sigh.
Today, many young (and old) people have a little understanding or interest in learning about our system of government. For them, history is about memorization—boring. For the longest time, I felt the same until I attended the University of Michigan (law school) Professor William Ian Miller’s lecture, “Bloodfeuds.” Consequently, I reread all the Icelandic Sagas, this time they made sense, and I was hooked on history.
The United States is the oldest democracy in the world. It’s not a perfect system, but it’s better than anything else we’ve created. True democracy is about a shared commitment to the highest good. President Lincoln said it’s about “malice for none and charity for all.”
Now that we are teetering between continuing our representative system of governing to authoritarianism or an oligarchy system of governing, what will that look like? According to Business Insider, one in four Americans want an authoritarian government. Before we throw the baby out with the bathwater, let’s wrap it in a soft towel and take a moment to reflect on what it would feel like.
Authoritarianism is where the government has absolute power and maintains it by force. Oligarchy is a system of government that is run by a few wealthy (usually) men. In an oligarchy system of government, the power is in the hands of a small class of influential people called oligarchs. Loyalty is the essential component, more important than the truth.
Four years of the Trump administration gave us a taste of an oligarchy. For example, when Dr. Bright (Ph.D. in immunology), who led the federal agency responsible for developing a covid vaccine, said that the anti-malaria drug Trump promoted should first be rigorously vetted, Trump fired him.
Dr. Birx got along with Trump as long as she agreed with everything he said. When she finally pushed against his ideas, a clear indication of a lack of loyalty, he threw her reputation into the sewer. Speaking to reporters, Trump said, “Dr. Birx is a proven liar with very little credibility left.”
The United States is now a democracy in theory. Considerable evidence shows that powerful corporations and wealthy individuals have more influence (money) on policymaking than the voting public. In 2022 and 2024, we vote to rebuild our democracy or adopt a restrictive system run by a leader and for a small group that demonstrates complete loyalty to the commander-in-chief. It’s our choice.
Professor William Ian Miller, Michigan University law school https://michigan.law.umich.edu/faculty-and-scholarship/our-faculty/william-ian-miller
BBC, “US is an oligarchy, not a democracy” https://www.bbc.com/news/blogs-echochambers-27074746
WikiDiff, “Differences between Oligarchy and Authoritarianism” https://wikidiff.com/oligarchy/authoritarianism
Business insider, “One-of-four Americans want an authoritarian government” https://www.businessinsider.com/26-percent-of-americans-are-right-wing-authoritarian-new-poll-2021-6?op=1
The New York Times, “Health Dept. Official Says Doubts on Hydroxychloroquine Led to His Ouster” https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/22/us/politics/rick-bright-trump-hydroxychloroquine-coronavirus.html“
Newsweek, “Donald Trump Calls Dr. Birx ‘Proven Liar’ After She Said She Was Forced To Censor Herself” https://www.newsweek.com/donald-trump-calls-dr-birx-proven-liar-after-she-said-she-was-forced-censor-herself-1579667
Oldest.org, 10 Oldest Democracies in The World https://www.oldest.org/politics/democracies/
Bulletin. Represent. Us. “The U.S. is an Oligarchy? The Research, Explained” https://bulletin.represent.us/u-s-oligarchy-explain-research/