Humans often fail to understand that what we consider as “normal” is highly subjective. Our minds are crippled by the chains of circumstance and these bonds constrain us from analyzing the consequential assumptions we all make about our lives.
Immanuel Kant once wrote:
Enlightenment is man’s release from his self-incurred tutelage. Tutelage is man’s inability to make use of his understanding without direction from another. Self-incurred is this tutelage when its cause lies not in lack of reason but in lack of resolution and courage to use it without direction from another.
He was warning us that to live better we must not fall prey to assumptions made by others.
So in honor of independent thinking, here’s a dearly held reality that I believe has handicapped America’s potential: we do not come close to preparing our citizens to be active participants in democracy. Said in another way, Americans live in a politically empty society.
Just look at how we (subjectively) educate our youngest citizens. American parents prioritize practicing sports over practicing politics in a way that is peculiar. “Sports are embedded in American schools in a way they are not almost anywhere else.” That quote is from an excellent piece by Amanda Ripley titled, “The Case Against High-School Sports.” She found:
When I surveyed about 200 former exchange students last year, in cooperation with an international exchange organization called AFS, nine out of 10 foreign students who had lived in the U.S. said that kids here cared more about sports than their peers back home did. A majority of Americans who’d studied abroad agreed.
Face it: we live in a society where it is normal (even laudable) to train a child for basketball five times a week and abnormal (even puzzling) to train a child to be an active political citizen. This seems like an odd calculation to make. Culturally absurd, even.
After all, the odds your kid turns out to be a professional athlete are very bloody low. But the odds your kid becomes a citizen that has to vote on complex issues? Very bloody high.*
So why are we emphasizing one and not the other?
The US Department of Education released a booklet in 1993 called, “Helping Your Child Become a Responsible Citizen“ and in it, they made the following observation:
Just as children must be taught to tie their shoes, read and write, solve math problems, and understand science concepts and events in history, so must they be guided in developing the qualities of character that are valued by their families and by the communities in which they live.
We are not teaching our citizenry how to participate in a democracy. Imagine, if you will, if Americans “transferred our obsessive intensity about high-school sports” to educating teenagers about politics. I dare say that our nation would not have voted for Donald Trump, an assumption that seems to be backed up by data.
Noam Chomsky has noted, quite astutely, the effect of our nation’s obsession with sports instead of politics:
When I’m driving, I sometimes turn on the radio and I find very often that what I’m listening to is a discussion of sports…People call in and have long and intricate discussions and it’s plain that quite a high degree of thought and analysis is going into that. People know a tremendous amount…On the other hand, when I hear people talk about, say, international affairs or domestic problems, it’s at a level of superficiality that’s beyond belief.
Before you dismiss Chomsky as an elitist prick, read further (emphasis mine):
In part, this reaction may be due to my own areas of interest, but I think it’s quite accurate basically. And I think that this concentration on such topics as sports makes a certain degree of sense. The way the system is set up, there is virtually nothing people can do anyway, without a degree of organization that’s far beyond anything that exists now, to influence the real world. They might as well live in a fantasy world, and that’s in fact what they do.
Americans’ lack of practice towards living the political life has consequences. Due to the democratization of our primary elections (they were once controlled by “insider-dominated processes“), we now have a system that is driven by voter participation. Which is good.
But this also means that “primary races now tend to be dominated by highly motivated extremists and interest groups, with the perverse result of leaving moderates and broader, less well-organized constituencies underrepresented.” Pew Research shows that 17 percent of eligible voters participated in the Republican primaries and 12 percent in the Democratic primaries. That is stunning. And that lack of involvement has to be systemic. It has to be “learned”.
Pericles, the father of Athenian Democracy, had a lovely quip on this topic that has aged pretty well and applies here: “Just because you do not take an interest in politics doesn’t mean politics won’t take an interest in you.”
Americans assume otherwise. And it’s because we are immersed in a society where it is normal to dismiss politics as a peripheral concern. If we are to recover any respect for truth and political engagement, we must recognize that America is not properly prioritizing politics in a variety of forms. The good news is, we have the power to change that.
*Before you retort, “Well the point of sports isn’t to be a professional athlete, it’s to stay fit, make friends, and learn leadership skills” — I agree. Could that not be achieved though in a more balanced approach, however?