Years ago, my career goal was teaching college journalism. After almost 10 years of teaching, I accumulated shelves of books and a file cabinet full of teaching material. While discarding those files, I ran across two newspaper headlines about the same 1970 airplane accident.
The New York Times headline read “All 156 Survive as Jet Landing Here Splits.” The Daily News headline screamed “77 HURT IN JET CRACKUP AT JFK.” Same story, same facts, but one headline emphasized the positive; the other emphasized the negative.
In recent years, the American public and its information sources shifted from The Times to The Daily News — from positive to negative. Primary news sources moved from the accurate, well edited, largely positive journalism of Walter Cronkite — “the most trusted man in America” — to the always negative, mostly inaccurate, never edited garbage broadcast by Tucker Carlson. Public interest gravitated from the honored values of traditional journalism to the value-starved gossip of social media. Public attention shifted from thoughtful leaders to mindless celebrities spouting populist simplicity.
For one thing, vital institutions faded — family, religion, business, Congress and education, among others. Families — those that survive — send their children to school and into maturity without understanding of or respect for basic social skills — the need to respect authority, to obey rules and to treat others as equals. (Ask any teacher.)
Religion – also a declining institution – focuses on ritual and defending itself rather than instilling morality and social responsibility. Business cares more about profit and bigness than about product quality and customer service. For members of Congress, labels are more important than the nation itself. And education — through no fault of educators themselves — focuses too much attention on teaching vocational skills and not enough on helping students become well-informed, fully functioning citizens.
Higher education adds to the shift from a well-informed citizenry. College students are pushed toward early specialization and away from a well-rounded academic experience. And specialties grow ever narrower as students seek to differentiate their own research from the research of others, whether the differentiation is meaningful.
Clearly, one does not need a Ph.D. to be a good citizen. But one does need to learn about the history of the nation and why it has become the greatest democracy of all time. Despite many human mistakes along the way, the positives far outweigh the negatives. Good citizens must learn about accepting and appreciating others, no matter how different they may look or think. Americans must learn the basic rules and accepted principles of the English language to maximize effective communication within society.
Good citizens must learn how to get along with others beyond simply tolerating one another. Citizens must learn about the structure of government and how democracy works. One must learn that democracy, with all its shortcomings, works better than autocracy, that free enterprise works better than socialism, and that rule-making (and volunteer rule-keeping) is vital to the success of any society. One must learn why the arts set standards of performance for every society.
One also needs to know the basics of mathematics, science and technology, but intense focus on those subjects in a vocational sense can come later. The more one knows about the basics of civilized behavior, the more productive one will be in whatever vocational goals one pursues.
Each of us can choose either negative or positive approaches to living. A positive approach to reality always produces more success, more progress, more satisfaction and more happiness.
Don Gale, a long-time Utah journalist, has observed and written about events for 60-plus years. He knows that, for most human beings, life today is better than it was six decades ago.