April 2, 2020

What should the average American be expected to know?

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This archived article was written by: Carlie Miller

I have just finished reading a book published by the American Heritage Society titled 199 Things Every American Should Know. It lists historical facts along with political knowledge, technological discoveries, quotes and famous Americans. I always considered my knowledge of Americana to be in the higher end of average, meaning that I have retained most of my U.S. history learning and have added varying amounts over the years and since my debating days in high school, I have paid close attention to the political scene in America and internationally. I am not bragging, just laying out the background for the point I am trying to make.
The AHS book was new frontier, containing 99.9 percent new information about Americana that I didn’t even think to research. The book listed six American historians “because they’re our best” it reads, but I only recognized one. I had better luck with the pictures that represented America (such as the unfinished portrait of George Washington by Gilbert Stuart and American Gothic by Grant Wood) and the section titled “Seven Speeches to Remember” but I could not identify all of them. I will not even start with the political campaign slogans. If this book is any indication of what the American citizen should know about America, then I am a poor citizen.
What should the average American citizen know? I have been thinking about it since I did the piece on the responsibility to learn the history of this country. I know that we citizens must know our nation well enough to pass the test we created for immigrants to take, but I also believe that we need to know enough to support clear, strong and researched opinions of how this country has functioned in the past and how we want it to function in the future. American history and politics is vital to this end, but so is knowledge of international politics. For a global powerhouse, the U.S. is made up of a dangerous amount of isolationists (meaning people who pay no attention to the outside world because they believe it is unimportant, not the foreign policy). How many of you, my dear readers, can name the current leader of Russia and is he/she a king, emperor, dictator, or president? Do you know what type of government India has or whether the U.S. recognizes Tibet as a separate country or a rebelling region in China? These things are not useless trivia one can learn to sound intelligent or win a game show with, but vital information that will help you support or disagree with policies our nation puts into place.
Now let us downplay the importance of all this for a second. What does any of it matter if we don’t even know what we call ourselves? To be clearer, a citizen of America is called an American, when the American lives in Utah, he is named Utahn (never spell Utahn with a second “a” as it is a highly offensive error and you might get punched in the face), but here is where we reach the unknown. When the Utahn lives in Carbon County is he a “Carbonite” (like the early explosive used in mining) or a “Carbonate” (as in the pop in soda pop)? Or if we go by township, is the Utahn from Price a “Pricenian” or a “Pricer”? The truth may be that someone here might have figured it out or we were never named. Toponymists, people who study place names, find rural and small towns challenging since there usually isn’t a name for everything and the locals really don’t care to label themselves anything except Americans.
So in the end, what should the average American citizen know? I cannot clearly answer that question. You don’t need to know if you are a “Carbonite” or “Carbonate” and you don’t necessarily need to know the complete history of America or the names of every world leader and their dogs, but you do need to know what you stand for and why. America is a Democratic Republic which is to say that the people choose leaders to represent them, but the part that many forget (the Democratic part) is that the people are still involved in the decision-making process. Without this key factor, it would not be a Democratic Republic. How are you involved in the process? Do you collect information about the hot topics that affect this country and study the history of the issue and similar ones to see what the outcome was or past reactions? Do you understand the politics of the situation by listening to all sides and the reasons they give to their stance? The average American may not be involved in the process or backup opinions with research, but the great American does. Which do you want to be?

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