TIMOTHY EGAN: Sotomayor's message to students: Actually, you can fix stupid

Posted April 1, 2018 5:00 a.m. EDT

EDITOR'S NOTE: Tomothy Egan writes an online opinion column for The New York Times.  Prior to that,  Egan worked as a national correspondent for the Times, roaming the West.  As a Times correspondent, he shared a Pulitzer Prize in 2001 with a team of reporters for its series, “How Race is Lived in America.”

Pope Francis opened the holiest week of the Christian calendar with an admonition to the generation that will own the 21st century. “Dear young people, you have it in you to shout,” he said in his homily. “It is up to you not to keep quiet.”

Other voices were more censorious. On “Fox & Friends,” which provides President Donald Trump with a steady ration of half-truths and hatreds to fill an empty head and an empty schedule, a co-host had some advice for younger citizens just now learning how to use the wings of democracy.

“These 17-year-olds should go back to civics class,” said Pete Hegseth, scowling at the March for Our Lives demonstrators.

Actually, civics class has come to them, in the form of a hail of bullets from a weapon of war that is legal because of a broken political system. They’ve been forced, by triage, to learn how to use the tools of democracy that were largely denied them by passive educators.

It’s no secret that in the rush to produce adults who are adept at applying science and technology to modern life, we left them ill-trained in the basic duties of citizenship. Nearly a third of Americans cannot name a single branch of government, and almost 40 percent are unable to cite a right guaranteed by the First Amendment.

But it’s not the kids who are the doofuses. “There’s a big difference between being ignorant and being stupid,” said Sonia Sotomayor, associate justice of the Supreme Court. She’s been touring the country — 38 states so far — promoting civic competence among the young, a virtue that used to be a bedrock part of American education.

“No one is born a citizen,” she said during a stopover in Seattle. “You have to be taught what that means.”

The teaching, for a generation that has come of age since the 1999 Columbine massacre, for the 187,000 students who have experienced a shooting on campus during school since then, has been largely do-it-yourself. Only a handful of states require proficiency in civics and government as a condition of graduation. The educational system, with its fear of confrontational topics and its corporate-driven emphasis on STEM, has failed them.

But one of the great surprises of the Trump era is the renaissance of civic engagement — at a level of urgency not seen in half a century. It’s a reaction to severe stress on democracy; Trump is both the cause, and leading symptom, of that stress.

The awakening started with the revulsion of women — at a president who is credibly accused of sleeping with porn stars while his wife nursed their newborn child and who bragged of sexual assault, and at his daily slights to truth, dignity and other values that mothers teach their children.

And now it’s the young’s turn. Critical thinking has arrived at a critical time. They’re not afraid of trolls; they grew up with snark from a screen. So after Laura Ingraham at Fox taunted a Parkland shooting survivor for not getting into his college of choice, the student immediately tweeted out a list of her advertisers. When they threatened to bail, she apologized.

“These self-righteous kids screaming at you on television over the weekend aren’t helping out at all,” said Tucker Carlson, another Fox scold. As he knows, they are helping — but just not his side. “First we march, then we vote,” was a leading slogan of the demonstrations.

The problem is that Americans are among the least-active voters in developed countries — another consequence, I would argue, of not teaching the manual of democracy in school. And young people are the least likely to vote.

“Adults mess up a lot,” Sotomayor told the high school kids in her audience in Seattle. “We don’t have all the answers. We need you to come up with fresher and better ideas.”

So today, these young people wonder why even the most obvious legislation, universal background checks on all gun purchases, can’t pass in Congress despite support from 90 percent of the public. They learn quickly that it’s because a single lobby owns the politicians. The obvious solution, which jaded political minds often forget, is to vote the bums out. It’s not complicated.

And again, it shouldn’t be a DIY thing. Let’s teach people how to tell fake news from real news. They do this in Italy, and many universities in the United States have taken it up as well. It should be, like learning road signs before you can get a driver’s license, one of the courses that everyone takes before getting out of high school.

Democracies die when citizens feel powerless. The biggest stress test will come if Trump fires special counsel Robert Mueller. Then, all the people new to the process will see what a constitutional crisis looks like. But thanks to recent, real-life lessons, they’ll recognize it for what it is. And they won’t feel powerless to do something about it.

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