10/09/2012 03:41 pm ET Updated Dec 09, 2012

National Ignorance

"If a nation expects to be ignorant & free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was & never will be," wrote Thomas Jefferson to Charles Yancey on January 6, 1816. Unfortunately, nearly two hundred years later, we are abandoning the central ingredient in the development of thoughtful, engaged citizens: humanities education. This neglect places the future of our republic -- of our civilization -- in peril.

Election season is here, and across the country candidates for local, state, and national offices are debating. It is a time-honored American tradition. In theory, it is an opportunity for the people to discuss the best course for realizing the American ideals first articulated by our founding generation. But, like the rest of our one-liner, ad-copy, zinger, factoid, sound-bite culture, politics has abandoned real debate about issues. We are instead consumed with fact-checking and discrediting small details of candidates' statements and assertions.

In 1858, Stephen A. Douglas and Abraham Lincoln were candidates for United States Senate from Illinois. In seven events from August 21 to October 15, the two men debated the future of the United States, the American slave system and the impact of slavery on the nation. It was a state election, but a national issue. Crowds of as many as 15,000 Illinoisans came in person to hear the candidates. They stood for hours listening to complex speeches. Tens of thousands more people read the speeches printed in newspapers across the country. This 1858 state election galvanized the nation.

The Lincoln-Douglas debates were substantive conversations about the issues facing the nation. One candidate spoke for 60 minutes. The second candidate spoke for 90 minutes. The three-hour event ended with a 30-minute "rejoinder" by the first candidate. They discussed the Kansas-Nebraska Act and the repeal of the Missouri Compromise. They debated the doctrine of popular sovereignty -- that individual states and not federal policy should decide the future of slavery. They cited the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Northwest Ordinance, the Louisiana Purchase, and the Compromise of 1850, among other law and historical precedent, including the Supreme Court's recent decision in Dred Scott v. Sanford.

At the final event in Alton, Illinois on October 15, Lincoln summarized the entire debate: "It is the eternal struggle between these two principles -- right and wrong -- throughout the world. They are the two principles that have stood face to face from the beginning of time; and will ever continue to struggle. The one is the common right of humanity and the other the divine right of kings."

The importance of these debates was not lost on the 1858 national newspaper-reading audience. They understood the historical, classical, and legal references. They analyzed the arguments and the evidence presented by Lincoln and Douglas. They discussed it in local gatherings and meeting places. They debated the impact of the ideas on the future of their community. They formed opinions that were perhaps even more strident and partisan than those of a polarized twenty-first century American audience. Nineteenth-century education, however, was based in the humanities. They expected, they demanded that leaders -- in elections but also on the floor of state and national legislatures -- debate issues in the context of the nation's revolutionary heritage and the impact of American ideas on the life of their community.

Twenty-first century Americans should demand no less. American ideas are important, an essential element for charting our future. Unfortunately, we may be losing our ability to discern quality debate. Today we deemphasize humanities education -- history, literature, the classics, the arts -- in our schools. We discount the importance of humanities education in our everyday lives. We -- the American people -- are the nation. It is the responsibility of "We the People" to require higher-quality debate among our leaders -- local, state, and national -- in all our public forums. And any demand to improve the quality of the discourse must begin with a focus on humanities education. If we disregard the basic tools of educated, informed, engaged citizenship, we must understand that we do so at the peril of the republic--at the peril of our very civilization.