Now more than ever, King’s words ring alarmingly true.
The insurrectionist mob that descended on the United States Capitol on Jan. 6, was incited by its inability to separate “objective truth (from) paranoid fantasy.” The mob refused to think critically about the deluge of flawed information that’s been provided to them. The mob sought out to “Save America.” Instead, it left at least five people dead and dozens more injured.
The painful series of events from two weeks ago reminds us that education — albeit the misuse of education and the spread of misinformation — has always been a reliable tool in ploys to dismantle democracy. However, King’s life and legacy remind us that education is also the most powerful tool we have to push democracy forward. Recent years show us why we must continue to protect American democracy. But first, we must become much more purposeful and intentional about how we teach our students.
The capacity to think critically helps us process and make sense of our ideas and those of others. It helps us better understand and appreciate the responsibilities of citizenship. Simply put, critical thinking is what’s needed for a democracy to thrive. It isn’t reserved for college graduates or those with a PhD. It doesn’t depend on your zip code or your bank account. Critical thinking is rooted in the quality of education you have access to or decide to access.
That’s why educators, school officials, parents and community leaders must work together to build and support high-quality educational options that promote honest, respectful and fact-based dialogue among students of all ages.
King understood this principle more than most.
He knew that we simply cannot afford to turn a blind eye or succumb to the fear of speaking openly and honestly about how our democracy was created in the first place. Today, we can’t rely on social media or reality TV to do the hard work for us.
We must teach our students that American democracy was born out of a twin history and legacy of slavery and segregation. They must learn that American democracy was born from the teachings of King and countless other community and civic changemakers whose lives and movements were dedicated to making America better and more just. It’s up to us to improve how we design the lessons and courses we teach so we can keep our democracy healthy and vibrant.
As we’ve seen, the cost of refusing to think critically and discern truth from fantasy can end in disaster.
Whether we’re talking about a group of six men, their plot to kidnap Democratic Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and their belief in a “‘self-sufficient’ society.” Or a young counter protestor, who was “passionate about injustice,” being killed during a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va.
When left unchecked and uncontested, inaccurate, dangerous and violent belief systems quickly become pervasive.
Some suggest that “the nation is partisan and polarized to a dangerous degree.” This sentiment may be true but I believe that this unique period in time — while distinctively challenging — is not insurmountable. By providing our students with the tools and resources they need to think critically, both inside and outside the classroom, we can continue King’s work of strengthening our democracy.
Our students must know that in the United States of America, the fabric of our republic is bigger than one political office. It’s much stronger than insurrectionists and demagogues. It’s stronger than “alternative facts” and “alternate realities.”
Despite, or more accurately because of, the safeguards and freedoms that democracy provides, it’s up to us to teach the next generation how to defend it.
Kevin P. Chavous is a former District of Columbia City council member. He is an attorney, author, education reform activist and president of Academic Policy and External Affairs at Stride, Inc.