Floating around Facebook and Twitter recently has been a Jimmy Kimmel video in which people on the street are asked whether they prefer Obamacare or the Affordable Care Act. Of course, Kimmel emphasizes the apparently not inconsiderable number of people who indicated preference for the Affordable Care Act, because they had no idea that the two are actually the same thing. One wonders how many people actually knew this. Nonetheless, Kimmel’s black comedy underscores something that seems to have been largely ignored in current discourse on the state of American society — that an educated populace is the foundation of a healthy, functioning democracy.
This point is one that the Founding Fathers understood well. In 1786 Jefferson wrote to fellow Virginian George Wythe, “I think by far the most important bill in our whole code is that for the diffusion of knowledge among the people. No other sure foundation can be devised, for the preservation of freedom and happiness. … Preach, my dear Sir, a crusade against ignorance; establish & improve the law for educating the common people. Let our countrymen know that the people alone can protect us against these evils (tyranny, oppression, etc.) and that the tax which will be paid for this purpose is not more than the thousandth part of what will be paid to kings, priests and nobles who will rise up among us if we leave the people in ignorance.”
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John W. Traphagan is professor of religious studies and faculty affiliate of the Population Research Center at the University of Texas. He is also a regular contributor to The Diplomat, secretary general of the Japan Anthropology Workshop, a consultant for government and industry on Japanese culture and a professional jazz drummer. His most recent book, “Rethinking Autonomy: A Critique of Principlism in Biomedical Ethics,” was published this year.