The Myth of Democracy

I’d like to discuss the Myth of Democracy and its relationship to education; now, before you begin cursing me (or perhaps cajoling me onwards, who am I to say?) for doubting the justness of Democracy, let me explain what I mean by the term myth. To do so, I am going to have to step back a few years.

Around 2.5 million years ago, the genus Homo evolved in Africa and diversified into at least 8 different species that inhabited various (sometimes overlapping) regions of the earth at the same time. It is important to wrap our heads around this commonly misconstrued fact – our species, Homo sapiens, coexisted with various other human species rather than evolved from other species in a linear fashion. The reason this is important is because of the question that arises when discussing human evolution: how did a weak, slow, and overwhelmingly incapable species survive long enough to eventually become the apex predator on the planet?

In our vanity, we like to point to several ‘obvious’ explanations: our brains, opposable thumbs, and resulting tools among them. But the fact that we survived when other members of the human genus did not indicates that some other factors were at play in our species particular dominance – especially considering that some human species (neanderthals, for example) had larger brains and more capable muscles than us, and directly competed for resources in the same regions.

The most likely hypothesis is that our species underwent a Cognitive Revolution that changed the way our brains were able to communicate. Many species have some form of language, whether primitive calls that signal ‘there’s a predator coming!’ or the ability to convey emotions. But these bits of language have limits: in order for groups to survive, they must have mutual trust. This is gained by getting to know other members of the group, and our species first mastered this by developing the ability to convey information about others (gossip) essential for allowing larger groups to coalesce and thrive. Though counterintuitive, gossiping is the likely innovation that allowed us to increase our functioning group size to around 150 individuals (for comparison, chimpanzees cannot function beyond a group size of 20-50).

Then, as Yuval Noah Harari points out in his fantastic new text Sapiens, we took it further:

the truly unique feature of our language is not its ability to transmit information about men and lions. Rather, it’s the ability to transmit information about things that do not exist at all. As far as we know, only Sapiens can talk about entire kinds of entities that they have never seen, touched or smelled.
Legends, myths, gods and religions appeared for the first time with the Cognitive Revolution. Many animals and human species could previously say, ‘Careful! A Lion!’ Thanks to the Cognitive Revolution, Homo sapiens acquired the ability to say, ‘The lion is the guardian spirit of our tribe.’ This ability to speak about fictions is the most unique feature of Sapiens language. […] You could never convince a monkey to give you a banana by promising him limitless bananas after death in monkey heaven.

The creation of imagined narratives, or myths, allowed complete strangers to nevertheless interact and cooperate together. “Any large-scale human cooperation – whether a modern state, a medieval church, an ancient city or an archaic tribe – is rooted in common myths that exist only in people’s collective imagination.” We in the United States believe in freedom, justice, human rights, money, and Facebook. “People easily understand that ‘primitives’ cement their social order by believing in ghosts and spirits, and gathering each full moon to dance together around the campfire,” and that allowed them to form bands large enough to outcompete all other members of the Homo genus. “What we fail to appreciate is that our modern institutions function on exactly the same basis.”

Because myths and narratives are imagined rather than an immutable law of the universe, they can change quickly in the world we’ve inherited. On the timescale I’ve been discussing, 1776 counts as a recent year and provides us with one of the most drastic examples of the ways in which the beliefs of a large group of people can change their way of life rapidly. “Europe was created by history. America was created by philosophy,” Margaret Thatcher claimed. My interpretation of her sentiments is that while changes to the governmental narratives have occurred throughout Europe’s history, the structures tended to be based mostly on precedent with changes coming in minute and incremental steps; the founding of America was unique in that it was a deliberate, successful effort to completely change the narrative in one fell swoop to the idea that just governmental systems are “of the people, by the people, for the people,” they derive their power from the “consent of the governed” rather than through any other means. Furthermore, that “whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.” These truths laid down in the Declaration of Independence are not self-evident to all Homo sapiens that ever walked the earth; they are not immutable laws of nature or the universe – they were held by these people as the new narrative by which they wanted to live, and they believed (correctly, I think) that if every member of this Nation all held them as dear as they (if we believed in the common narrative), the resulting society would be more prosperous, stable, and just than any before it.

In order to understand how the Myth of Democracy has survived and to comprehend it in the context of contemporary culture as well as the future, it seems essential to me to note some of the conditions under which our Founding Fathers were able to create such a drastic shift in narrative leading up to the Declaration of Independence and the resulting Revolution and creation of American Democracy. First, it was important that the colonists had some separation from the government from which they were declaring independence – an ocean between the authorities in power and the revolting peoples is a sure advantage to the revolters. But the other essential ingredient in the shifting narrative had been created more than 300 years prior – Johannes Gutenberg’s printing press freed information from the hands of only the elite and made knowledge accessible to common people, and being possibly the most literate population unto that point in history, the American Revolution rode on the wake of this Print Revolution. One of the enduring pamphlets from the era, Common Sense, gives a glimpse into the narrative-changing literature of the day: “A long habit of not thinking a thing wrong, gives it a superficial appearance of being right, and raises at first a formidable outcry in defense of custom. But the tumult soon subsides. Time makes more converts than reason.” And so it did.

Today, as always, time continues converting narratives – but what have those narratives become? I would argue that the narrative surrounding Democracy in America (no pun intended) has changed since the Revolution and even since the 55 years later when the perceptive Alexis de Tocqueville visited to write the treatise Democracy in America on the form and function of our system. This should be at least partially self-evident: we are not going to have our current collective narrative revolve around a revolutionary idea which has already been fought for and won over. Furthermore, beyond just having a common oppressor in Britain, Tocqueville observed that “the entire society seems to have melted into a middle class,” during the early 1830’s, which would have been effective lubricant for creating a society that can share a common story and purpose. But to say that our Myth of Democracy has lost collective meaning from that era would still be an understatement. Overwhelmingly today, the narrative surrounding democracy has been transformed into one of imagery: of competing political parties vying for power through denigration of the ‘other,’ of pork-barrelling as a central impediment to true legislative dialogue and action, even of boring classes spanning our high school tenures – and what better place to either enliven or enervate the narrative of democracy than in education…

And of course, we must return to why this is important in the first place: if every large-scale human society in the history of the planet believed in some common narrative, what is ours if not Democracy? The American Experiment is, quite literally, rooted in the question: Is it possible to create a prosperous and stable society that derives from every possible cultural background and believes in freedom of ideas (religious, political, etc.) to the fullest possible extent? As such, our narrative is, as Postman noted in 1996, “the story of America as a great experiment and as a center of continuous argument.” Education, he argued then and I will argue now, is where pride in country and the revolutionary governmental system we have begins. Of course this pride is not based in shallow, xenophobic notions; it is literally rooted in the continuous argument of Democracy itself. Admittedly this argument gets tired and frustrated at times, and our temptation is to dramatize the sides of the argument or to turn to a completely different narrative that is easier to wrap our minds around – and we must resist this temptation as educators and citizens. “Thomas Jefferson […] knew what schools were for – to ensure citizens would know when and how to protect their liberty. This is a man who wrote an essay that could have cost him his life,” wrote Postman, “It would not have come easily to the mind of such a man, as it does to political leaders today, that the young should be taught to read exclusively for the purpose of increasing their economic productivity.”

As with Jefferson’s small, agrarian republic ideals (a topic that our students may actually have knowledge on, with the popularization of Hamilton), Jefferson’s educational ideals also appear to have faded. According to a 2014 Reason-Rupe Foundation poll (obviously a biased reason for running the poll, but I have no reason to question the validity of the results), 42 percent of the millennial generation believe socialism is preferable to capitalism, while only 16 percent can actually define socialism. The statistics on our nation’s average ability to pass the US Citizenship test is not much better. Same story with basic questions about the three branches of government, the Constitution, and Bill of Rights (even just the First Amendment). Thomas Jefferson warned “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.” Current Senator Ben Sasse summarizes his view of current American knowledge of the American Republic: “This level of ignorance smells like the death of an experiment in republican self-rule.”

“America will never be destroyed from the outside,” predicted Abraham Lincoln, “If we falter and lose our freedoms, it will be because we destroyed ourselves.” I realize that it may seem quite the contrary, but I am not hoping to insinuate doomsday prophecies right now; rather, I hope to convey that I believe our democratic narrative as well as education’s role in its creation is something teachers should be studying on a deeper level, that professional development can be centered around it (or at least include it), and that our Nation, should it hope to endure and prepare itself for the future, would do well to predict how the narrative will change and develop in the future and be ready to change with it. In the next post, we’ll start to do just that. [Hint: we’ll start back up again with Gutenberg… it’s important.]

Harari, Yuval N. (2015). Sapiens : a brief history of humankind. New York: HarperCollins Publishers.
Postman, N. (1995). The End of Education: Redefining the value of school. New York: Knopf.
Postman, N. (1969). Teaching as a Subversive Activity. New York: Dell Publishing Co.
Sasse, B. (2017). The Vanishing American Adult: Our coming-of-age crisis and how to rebuild a culture of self-reliance. New York: St. Martins Press.
Tocqueville, A., Mansfield, H. C., & Winthrop, D. (2000). Democracy in America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

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