With all of the debates, rallies, campaign stops, and speeches being covered, aired or soundbitten by the media for our presumed edification, there is, of course, much talk about the qualifications for president, who has the most relevant background, experience and insight. That may be important and it may not. It's hard to know on the front end, I think, what experiences might emerge as most important for the problems of the day or what growth in the job and adaptability to circumstance might emerge.
So I'd like to go back a step.
To be a candidate for national (maybe all) political office, a candidate needs to pass a basic test of citizenship. Yes, I'm talking about a sit-down exam, but not one designed to trap or surprise anyone who has taken the trouble to prepare for it. Such a test wouldn't be a chance for a "gotcha" moment, but if "you know nothing, John Snow," it will reveal that and you will be disqualified.
Make it available in any language. Make it open-ended in terms of time restrictions. Serve drinks, if necessary. Maybe even allow unsupervised use of smart phones during the exam! But for gosh sakes, anyone who is going to walk away from that exam with a passing score is going to write down with his or her own hand the basic realities of American history and American government.
Now, those of you who are sensitive about your weak candidate are going to think that this post is a surreptitious attack on Dr. Ben Carson. May I reassure you that his level of cluelessness about history and government is so pervasive as to be unfixable in this context. And his willful ignorance would never allow him to sit for such an exam anyway.
Still, I'd be lying if I said that his beliefs that Thomas Jefferson wrote the Constitution and that the Star of David is on the dollar bill didn't get me thinking along these lines. But so did the candidate who celebrated the Minutemen at Concord, only it was the wrong Concord! Or the female vice-presidential candidate who thought John Quincy Adams was a Founding Father. Or those who confuse The Declaration of Independence with the laws of the land.
My test might contain the following:
1. A knowledge of the basic documents of government, particularly the Constitution and the Bill Of Rights.
2. A history of the Founding Fathers and their various roles and actions.
3. A history of the lead up to the Civil War, the war itself, and he Reconstruction.
4. The later amendments to the Constitution.
5. Key speeches by Washington and Lincoln.
6. The "dark spots" on our past--slavery, the Trail of Tears and Indian resettlement, the internment of Japanese-American citizens
7. Patterns of immigration and migration.
8. Civil rights.
9. The roles and limits of the branches of government.
In other words, a basic high school American History course.
You may have other topics that I've missed. Perhaps some of mine are unnecessary. I would not contest any of that, but I would hope that we can agree that, for example, a presidential hopeful who doesn't know what has happened or how things are supposed to work cannot effectively speak about the office he or she seeks.
The person who does not know history may be doomed to repeat it, but there is an even larger irresponsibility for the person with such untutored ignorance who wants to lead.