I believe that people should know some facts about politics, history, and law. You can’t get along with skills alone; and not all facts are equally important. But how do we reason about what information is essential and what is trivial?
At an event earlier this week, I heard Eugene Hickock, a former US Deputy Secretary of Education, tell two stories that he intended to shock the audience. He had recently asked a family friend who is an excellent current college student to name the final battle of the Revolutionary War, and she couldn’t come up with “Yorktown.” (In the audience, all our jaws were supposed to drop when we heard this.) Also, Dr. Hickock now teaches constitutionalism in law school. Since the states are the issue in federalism, he asks his students to name all of the state capitals–and they cannot do it!
Now, I happen to think that a list of state capitals is mere trivia (you can look them up if you need them), although if an adult US citizen doesn’t know about Sacramento, Austin, or Albany, that may reflect a lack of experience reading political news. I understand the significance of Yorktown and recognize that sacrifices were made there that have benefitted us ever since. And yet I would put the name of Yorktown far down on a list of important historical facts–far, far below the First Amendment, Franklin’s diplomacy in France, the Stamp Tax, the existence of slavery in the colonies, and even the battles of Lexington and Concord.
I suspect that a room of reasonably open-minded people would soon agree about many items on a list of crucial facts and concepts, but some disagreements would persist. What criteria can we use to address such differences?