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Educating for Democracy: Are Politicians 'Dumbing Us Down?'

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The recent flak over Sarah Palin's inventive if grossly inaccurate recollection about "Paul Revere's Ride" and the apparent lack of any negative impact on her tentative presidential aspirations as a result, make me wonder if one of the future qualifications for the office of the Presidency will be the candidate's "IQ" -- Ignorance Quotient. In a blog I wrote for the Huffington Post prior to the congressional elections of 2010 I observed:

"When during the presidential debate between Jimmy Carter and then-President Gerald Ford, Ford made the gaffe that 'Poland is not under the control of the Soviet Union' when, at the time, it obviously was, many political observers believed that it was that failure of memory on his part that cost him the election. I wonder if a similar mistake were made by a candidate today, it wouldn't give him or her a boost in the polls for being as unabashedly ignorant as the majority of the electorate."

Palin's curious description of Revere's ride was that instead of specifically warning several of his fellow rebels that they were going to be arrested by the British, Revere actually "warned the British" that "we're not going to let you take away our arms."

This would be the equivalent of regarding as a "patriotic act" some American G.I. informing the Germans that "you aren't going to stop us from our sneak attack" before the Normandy Invasion in 1944. Of course, former President Bush exhibited his ignorance of many things -- or was he just pretending? -- that might be considered by some of his constituents as "elitist." It was the tag of "elitism" that was a negative factor for the "latte-drinking" John Kerry and even the "just folks" image of Jimmy Carter wasn't quite secure enough for him not to conceal from the public the fact that he was a passionate lover of classical music.

If our schools are supposed to give our students any ideals, one of them certainly should be a "love of knowledge," and not just to "get a good job" but to "have a full life." With the closing of libraries, the demonizing of our teachers, and the obvious decline in our citizens' regard for well-informed candidates for public office that require knowledge of a great variety of subjects in order to assure ourselves that they can make important judgments, we are on the brink of another "Dark Ages," when the highest intellectual achievement of Charlemagne, the most powerful political figure of that period in Europe, was his ability to sign his name.

Of course, the children of the elite and well-connected will still attend the best schools, unfettered by standardized testing and with a strong motivation to learn since they are almost guaranteed a bright future compared to their less-fortunate "standardized" fellow-students and traumatized teachers. But the public exhibition of ignorance that Sarah Palin parades as if it were a Merit Badge at a Girl Scout Jamboree (no disrespect meant to the Girl Scouts) without her being considered "unelectable due to acute stupidity" reveals not so much the failure of our schools, but of a society that embraces its own dumbing down. I wonder if President Ford had made such a gaffe about Poland today as he did thirty-five years ago, he might not win in a landslide. And that icon of superior intelligence , Albert Einstein, might well be dismissed as an "effete intellectual" were he alive today. As one of the few bumper stickers I like warns: "If you think education is expensive, try ignorance." Well, the high-profile governors who are savaging public education in their states seem determined to see which is more expensive: ignorance or education. We will probably find out in the next generation to our own ruin.