I am an immigrant from the former Soviet Union; a refugee; and an educator. Being a Russian-Jewish immigrant who has worked with young people and teachers across the US affords me a unique perspective, one that I hope will help me better grasp what this country is experiencing.
The presidential election is over. Mr. Donald Trump will succeed President Obama as the leader of the United States. Yet the turmoil, uncertainty and division that have surfaced over the last several months have not subsided. Journalists, pundits, and anyone with a Facebook account are all sharing their analysis of what happened last week and their prognosis for what happens next. While history supports the pattern of the incumbent party consistently losing ground relative to the challenger party, and voters tend to align themselves with the candidate who represents change in a given election, nothing about the 2016 election was typical.
Many Americans are now exercising their constitutionally protected right to protest. The demonstrators are showing their solidarity with women, people of color, the LGBTQ community and immigrants. They are sending a message that Mr. Trump does not have a national mandate and that his rhetoric and policies will not be normalized. Others are calling for unity and acceptance. President Obama addressed the American people shortly after Mr. Trump’s victory, saying: “we have to remember that we’re actually all on one team…We’re not Democrats first, we’re not Republicans first, we are Americans first…”, and CNN commentator Van Jones updated his mini-series on the differences between Trump and Clinton voters, encouraging Americans to listen to each other.
What has yet to be addressed is the urgent need for America to invest more resources in civic education.
In 1991, when I was a 6-year-old Muscovite and did not know a single word in English, the Soviet Union communist superpower underwent a radical transformation. Through a mostly peaceful revolution, many Soviet republics gained independence and a free and democratic Russia began to emerge. With Russia’s recent silencing of the opposition, state takeover of media, and the annexation of Crimea, the once hopeful democracy has regressed to an oppressive oligarchy. The US is starting to follow Russia’s lead, but not for the reasons you think.
A few weeks ago the Economist published an article on Russia, Inside the bear. The most alarming part of the article was the fact that the majority of young people in Russia do not actually know how the country in which they reside came to be. The article notes a survey, conducted by the Levada Centre, one of the country’s only independent pollsters, that shows that “half the overall population and as many as 90% of young Russians know nothing about the [fall of the Soviet Union].” Millennials in Russia are oblivious to the fact that 25 years ago the Russian government controlled the press, imprisoned the opposition and was experienced a coup d’etat. These data suggest that ignorance is a contributing factor to the support Mr. Putin enjoys from the Russian people. Perhaps ignoring Russian history allows for the embrace of an untouchable ex-KGB oligarch.
The good news is I do not live in Russia. Here is the bad news. A survey conducted by the Annenberg Public Policy Center at UPenn found that Americans show great uncertainty when it comes to answering basic questions about how their government works. The survey revealed that only a third of respondents could name all three branches of the government, and just as many respondents could not name a single one. The survey also found that one in five Americans incorrectly thinks that a 5-4 Supreme Court decision is sent back to Congress for reconsideration. Stanford and the Center for Multicultural Education at the University of Washington confirm this issue. Their report, Youth Civic Development and Education, describes the “languishing state of civic education in the US…”.
If we as a people do not know how our government works then how can we keep our elected officials accountable? Perhaps if more Americans knew that the president cannot force our military to ignore the Geneva Conventions or direct soldiers to “take the families of terrorists”, Mr. Trump would be made to answer for his apparent misunderstanding of how the government works.
Being oblivious to persecution or racism is a conscious choice made by the privileged. Oppression is often passively perpetuated by everyday hardworking citizens. Folks who think of themselves as good people but lack the skills to critically assess themselves. Best elucidated by Hannah Arendt, racism is not just evil men with little mustaches or white hoods. One need not be a fanatic or sociopath to be oppressive. The banality of evil is what makes this wicked problem so complex. Racism, misogyny, homophobia and anti-Semitism are enacted out of fear, by folks who lack empathy and perspective.
From the elite coastal bubbles to the south and rural Midwest, we must teach our students the responsibility and privilege of equitable civic engagement and the perils of disengagement. Educators across this country have a duty to teach young Americans not only how our government works but how to be critical historians. With the current spike in minority students reporting harassment, educators must urgently empower students to combat ignorance with knowledge.
Resources for teachers:
Boris Krichevsky is a PhD student and teacher educator at the College of Education, University of Washington.(Twitter: @BorisKrichevsky)