The Bart Simpson Syndrome

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By: Michael M. Spear

While newspaper circulation continues to slide across the country, the leaders of the newspaper industry may be overlooking one of the basic reasons for this.

That reason clearly revealed itself in a recent Associated Press report that many Americans know more about Marge and Homer Simpson than they know about the First Amendment. Only one in four could name more than one of the First Amendment?s five guaranteed freedoms. The survey, conducted by the new McCormick Tribune Freedom Museum, found also that only one in 1,000 people could name all five freedoms.

What better example than this of a society that is no longer engaged in news or the government?

This shouldn?t be surprising. Americans also can tell you more about the Sopranos than they can about, say, the 9/11 Commission?s report and its ignored recommendations.

There are many other things about our Constitution and government and its players that people don?t know nowadays. If our newspapers have failed to reach the people about what is happening, our schools, at all levels, have failed to teach the responsibilities of citizenship in a constitutional democracy– such things as the importance of participation, voting and watching the government closely, all of which require avid news consumption.

So while the news industry is prostituting itself with celebrity worship and general entertainment news in order to please readers and try to hold them, it might consider investigating the fact that our schools, both at the secondary and at the college level, have failed to teach students the importance of civic engagement, the life blood of a democracy.

This is common knowledge in universities and I doubt whether anyone in academia is terribly concerned about it currently. But I wonder why we in academia don?t care more about it because of the stakes involved. It is no secret that few colleges and universities nowadays have within their curriculums courses aimed specifically at preparing students for the responsibilities, obligations and privileges of citizenship.

Even more alarming, many college students today have almost no interest in these obligations or the workings of their government and its players, whether state or federal. They also feel no strong ownership of their government. My journalism students will not, except under duress of weekly news quizzes throughout the semester, read a newspaper or news magazine to inform themselves. Perhaps this shouldn?t be surprising in a country where the president boasts that he doesn?t read these either.

What?s scary is that my students tell me they want the quick news gratification of television or the Internet. They want to be entertained. ?Democracy only works if everyone is working to maintain that democracy,? a public school civics teacher told me. ?Unfortunately, in civics, the emphasis in our schools is not on participation and that?s where it should be.? She pointed out that parents of students in her school would readily buy their kids expensive tennis shoes but they wouldn?t buy a newspaper even once a week so that she could have classroom current-events sessions.

The problem of course, is greater than just parent and student apathy. Newspapers, caught in the grip of bean counters, falling circulation figures and poor stock-market performance, have dramatically reduced newsroom staffs and are doing less and less comprehensive reporting. So even if my students do become more enthusiastic consumers of news, they will get short-changed.

They are also faced with greater government secrecy and less access since 9/11. The situation moved Hodding Carter, State Department spokesmanunder Carter, to say recently, ?What is happening, especially at the highest levels of government, is basically un-American. Americans should be treated as owners of their government and of their government?s information, not as supplicants to whom you dole it out when you feel like it.”

As for civic engagement, what we have is an across-the-board failure by parents, public schools and colleges to convey the importance to this generation of voting and of knowing what the government is doing in their name. We hear that they, along with the larger population, feel powerless, that political corruption has caused them to lose faith in government, that lobbyists are running the country, or that their attention is diverted by their zest for spending, all of which may be somewhat true, and all of which may have helped contribute to the steady decline in recent years of those who vote and those who read news publications.

Derek Bok, president emeritus and research professor at Harvard, points out in his recent book ?Our Underachieving Colleges,? that civic responsibility must be learned, that it is neither natural nor effortless. ?It takes work to inform oneself sufficiently to cast an intelligent vote,” he writes, ?let alone equip oneself to make wise decisions as an elected public official….Citizenship is not just another option for students to pursue or not as they choose.?

Jefferson said: The price of freedom is eternal vigilance. Part of that vigilance must involve civic engagement. I?m seeing no such vigilance today when vigilance seems more important than ever. If we can?t convince the rising generations to monitor the news, as poorly as it is often presented, and find out what the people they elect to Congress are doing in their names, how are they going to know whether they might be fiddling as the nation burns? Are we going to rock and roll, hip-hop and shop until we drop and wake up to a new master, one whose interest is not democracy?

What seems obvious to an actor, apparently doesn?t seem obvious to those of us in academia and in the news media who can make a difference right away. I?m referring to Richard Dreyfuss who is so alarmed by the situation that he is currently working on a civics curriculum for American public schools. Are those of us in academia and in the news media going to defer to Dreyfuss?

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