On April 10, 2024

How civics can save us from ourselves

Dear Editor,

Democracy has much to recommend it: access to public officials and opportunities to complain. 

Unlike a monarchy, with a single person in charge, a democracy gives ordinary citizens the chance to think beyond their private concerns and ponder the public good. Through argument and persuasion, citizens in a democracy have a chance to rub off the rust of selfishness and participate on the level of common concerns.

But thinking in terms of the common good is extremely challenging for human beings. We tend to be caught up in our personal affairs, assuming that what we want for ourselves is in everyone’s best interest. In monarchies, such confusion results in tyranny as kings confuse their will for divine decrees. 

In democracies, such confusion results in the tyranny of the majority: If the majority of voters think a certain way, it must be true.

Luckily, the Constitution puts up a lot of guardrails to protect the rights of minority viewpoints. Majorities are stymied by the separation of powers. Just because a faction takes over the legislative branch doesn’t mean it will control the White House.

Majorities are also thwarted through federalism. The majority may impose its will on the citizens of Alabama but not in Vermont. And finally, the judiciary assures that the rights of minorities are protected under the Constitution.

These three elements — separation of powers, federalism and an independent judiciary — are designed to save us from ourselves. By forcing each branch of government to check one another, by giving states sovereignty over their own affairs and giving the federal courts the power to overturn policy that crushes minority viewpoints, the Constitution makes it harder for any single faction to take over.

But this complicated form of government depends on a population that understands why we have guardrails in the first place. Without a civics education, citizens won’t understand why free speech and religious expression are important, why we have three branches of government or why the states have as much power as they do. 

If the people don’t have any understanding of the principles and structure of government, they may cede all power to the voice of the many, ignoring the arguments of the few.

Vermont is one of 11 states that do not require students to study civics before graduation. The only Vermonters who are required to understand the complexities of our form of government are those taking the U.S. Citizenship Test. Immigrants, not high school students, are more likely to know that the Constitution was ratified by state conventions and what is entailed in a “republican form of government.”

Luckily, the Secretary of State’s office recently launched a civics program offering resources and incentives for public school teachers.  Included on the website are books by Vermont author Christy Mihaly that explain the complexities of a republican form of government using poetry and pictures. Young readers learn the story of Jehovah’s Witnesses who challenged the constitutionality of pledging to the flag in public school and won. Two years prior, the Court had held that the state could force children to salute the flag, but the Barnette children refused to conform. Their religious-based civil disobedience ultimately led to greater protections for free speech in schools.

Another resource listed, the informational comic book “Freedom and Unity,” provides students with multiple ways to engage in democracy in Vermont. Unfortunately, it doesn’t explain the importance of dissent. A cartoon on page 14 shows “Take Back Vermont” protesters, who are listed as an “anti-gay” movement. The caption informs us that Vermont has a history of racism and eugenics, implying that the motivating factor for the protesters was bigotry, not the demands of conscience. 

Had the creators of “Freedom and Unity” described the robust arguments on both sides of the same-sex marriage debate, readers would have learned the benefits of honest disagreement. Those against gay marriage were given a chance to explain their concerns, to speak their consciences and to consider the implications when a traditional institution is changed. The fact that they lost doesn’t mean they should not have been heard. 

We don’t have to endorse what others say, but we all benefit from the right to say it. We don’t have to believe what others believe, but we all benefit from the rights of conscience. By respecting each other’s freedoms enough to actually consider dissent, majorities have less control over what can be said. 

A civics education reminds all of us that our freedoms depend on our capacity for mutual respect. These freedoms give minorities the opportunity to counter the reasoning of the majority, to speak according to the dictates of their conscience. We all benefit when dissenters have a chance to express their views.

A civics education would go a long way to reminding us why we should care.

Meg Mott, Putney

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