While there surely are many varied causes for the current American political situation, one among those is the relative ignorance of basic American history, scientific, technological knowledge, and what some refer to as “civics” among a large sector of our population. It is testimony to the failure of the country’s education system that a high percentage of the voting-age population is simply ignorant of basic facts—knowledge that is necessary to act reasonably and rationally in the political process.
This void isn’t limited to those with little education or those without significant professional achievements. It is telling, for example, that in 2009, 89 percent of those who took a test on civic knowledge expressed confidence they could pass it; in fact, 83 percent would have failed.
In short, as I’ve written in the past, the public’s limited knowledge—or even what the psychologist William James called “acquaintance with knowledge”—is neither monopolized by the poorly educated nor found only among certain social classes. This illiteracy has created a void that is easily filled by those with anti-science, anti-intellectual, and demagogic leanings.
To immediately cite the absurd, one 2016 presidential candidate and former two-time governor of New Mexico, Gary Johnson, had no idea what was going on in Aleppo, Syria, where a great human tragedy involving the United States is unfolding before the world’s eyes. Moreover, asked by the commentator, Chris Matthews, to name his favorite leader of any nation in the world, Johnson could not name one, and after a pregnant pause said he was having an “Aleppo moment.” Along the same lines, Tony Schwartz, who was Donald Trump’s ghostwriter for The Art of the Deal, suggests that Trump apparently rarely, if ever, reads books of any kind, much less historical works. No wonder he turns out to be woefully ignorant of history and science, or of the near-scientific consensus about global climate change and our seeming determination to destroy our planet.