Sunday, February 22, 2015

How Informed Are We Really?

Post by Cathy Ahrens: Cathy is a Nationally Certified Board teacher in her 25th year of teaching Social Studies, all at Bettendorf High School. You can follow her on Twitter @Ahrens_Cathy

As a high school U.S. history and government teacher, I watch serious issues unfold around me with great trepidation.  While there was a road rage murder tonight, global warming impact and social security bankruptcy tomorrow, and the war on terror every day, there is one part of me that is simply just glad its not my job to address these issues.  Then the reality settles in.  It is my job, and your job, and the job of your students in your classroom, including those who are passing and those who aren’t doing a thing in class… it is all of our jobs in a democracy.  Franklin Delano Roosevelt said  “Democracy cannot succeed unless those who express their choice are prepared to choose wisely. The real safeguard of democracy, therefore, is education.”  How well equipped are we to take on this challenge?

Congress is getting ready to debate the Authorization for the Use of Military Force, or AUMF , which if passed will essentially renew the President’s power as Commander in Chief to continue the fight against ISIL in the Middle East.  Obama’s administration has already begun the attacks with the authorization “left over” from that gained by Bush in the wake of 9-11.  The very polarized Congress and society within which we live will debate the need for this, and certainly the wisdom of this, but that is not the focus here.  Instead, the question that needs to be addressed is how will  U.S.  Congresspersons make this decision, which will likely cost billions of dollars, the lives of thousands, and last an unknown number of years into the future?  What will they use to guide the all-important yea or nay that will either continue or complicate the fight against terror?  Will it be their party, the media, or their constituents that hold the most sway?  To what extent are these sources of information qualified to guide wise policy? 

In today’s partisan atmosphere, how party leaders cue their members to vote may be more influenced by how it will affect their next election than what will make the best policy for the country in this circumstance.  This is evidenced most obviously by how almost every Congressperson responded negatively to the AUMF when proposed.  Careful to appease both sides, Obama chose wording that would be less likely to result in an over commitment for Democratic members, and would not go far enough toward empowering the military for most Republican members.  Congress knows AUMF is not likely to see results that can be characterized as a “victory” in the near future, if ever, so they are staking their ground so they can point out to their constituents in 2016 that they were opposed to its passage from the beginning.   They have only to look at the new Senator from Illinois named Barack Obama in 2004 who was able to say he opposed the war in Iraq to see how useful such a stance can be.  True debate about the merits of action are likely to get lost in this jockeying for position.

Since most Americans have not taken a trip to the war zones to experience the action first hand and certainly don’t get the opportunity to question the commanders and intelligence analysts involved in the action on the ground, they must rely on the media for information to help them understand what is at stake.  Since most media outlets rely on advertisers for their sustenance, there is an emphasis on the bold and brash, with a good picture, with only enough depth to fit inside a sound bite.  Few go to the effort to research beyond.

 To what extent should our Congresspersons listen to us, their constituency?  How informed are we?  We are tweeting with greater frequency, and are answering the CNN poll that our Congresspersons may be looking at, but do we know what we are talking about?  What are schools doing to arm us with the ability to think critically?  Can schools do more to engender a sense of intellectual curiosity, so voters keep an open mind and recognize value in exploring an alternative viewpoint?  How well can we distinguish between a quality objective source and some radical’s blog?  The rise of radical Islam has been a growing element of American foreign policy for almost as long as we feared communist expansion, yet few history classes teach beyond the cold war.  It’s time students leave high schools with an understanding of the background of the conflicts that directly involve an ever increasing number of Americans.  

As billions of dollars are being spent on the front lines to “win the war on terror”, maybe we are missing the point.  Maybe a better understanding of our history, and a functional democracy that utilizes its resources to make decisions to positively affect the greatest number, based on INFORMED decisions, is where we should start.

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