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Perry on Politics: The decline of political literacy and the rise of Trump

Perhaps the most amazing fact about Donald Trump is that he doesn't read. Not books, not much of anything.

He's not alone. Though the first public school, Boston Latin, was opened 381 years ago, and began teaching young settlers to read, we're still missing something, for as many as 30 million Americans are illiterate today. "But the current presidential election may yet prove that an even bigger part of the citizenry is politically illiterate," columnist Timothy Egan noted in the New York Times the other day. "Which is to say, they will vote despite being unable to accept basic facts needed to process this American life."

They will, for the most part, vote for Donald Trump.

Trump, says Mr. Egan, "is both a product of the epidemic of ignorance and a main producer of it. He can litter the campaign trail with hundreds of easily debunked falsehoods" and his politically illiterate followers will swallow each and every word.

We don't teach civics – courses in which we studied the Constitution, the Presidency, the Congress, the courts, and all the rest – anymore. If we did, says the Times columnist, Trump would not have gotten away with claiming that judges "sign bills."

It's just not high schools that don't teach political history any more, it's colleges and universities too. According to the American Historical Association, three-quarters of the nation's bastions of so-called higher learning have no room on their faculties for political historians or political scientists. Researchers discovered that in the last decade employment ads for scholars in these specialties came to a grand total of 15.

As a result, Fredric Logevall and Kenneth Osgood conclude, "the study of America's past is being marginalized."

University of Chicago's incoming freshmen were greeted the other day by a letter from John Ellison, the dean of students. "Our commitment to academic freedom," he wrote, "means that we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial, and we do not condone the creation of intellectual 'safe spaces' where individuals can retreat from perspectives at odds with their own."

Dean Ellison obviously has read the First Amendment to the Constitution, which defends "freedom of speech, or of the press, or the right of people peaceably to assemble." Students and faculty who deplored the letter should read it too.

Clearly a "dumbing down" in our politics has enveloped us. The Princeton Review reported that the legendary Lincoln-Douglas debates in 1858 were conducted roughly at a high-school senior level of understanding. The 1960 Kennedy-Nixon debates were conducted at a 10th grade level. The level dropped to sixth grade in 2000.

"And in the upcoming debates – 'Crooked Hillary' against 'Don the Con' – we'll be lucky to get beyond pre-school potty talk," writes a disconsolate Mr. Egan.

James M. Perry, a prominent veteran political reporter, contributes regular observations to post-gazette.com. Mr. Perry was the chief political correspondent of The Wall Street Journal until his retirement. Prior to that, he covered national politics for the Dow Jones weekly, The National Observer. He can be reached at erieperry@aol.com.