People all over the world were shocked when Donald Trump was elected to the presidency in November. A reality television star and real estate developer–known primarily for his litigious loutishness and pumpkin hue–had been elected to the highest office in the United States of America, a respected liberal democracy. How did this happen?

In the grand experiment of American governance, an educated and well-informed public is indispensable. It stands to reason; to whatever extent the public is going to have a hand in choosing policymakers and influencing the course of our republic, that public needs to be reasonably intelligent and aware. Historically, we’ve relied on two things to ensure this: compulsory public education and a healthy, responsible news media.

Trump points an anointing finger at Jerry Falwall, Jr. after speaking in Lynchburg, Virginia, January 18, 2016. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts

Trump points an anointing finger at Jerry Falwell, Jr. in Virginia last week (REUTERS/Joshua Roberts)

And how have we been doing in these areas? Not particularly well, unfortunately. Let’s start with the news media. Through decades of deregulation (courtesy of conservative lawmakers on both sides of the aisle) we’ve seen a pathetic shrinkage of the reporting capacity of our newsrooms. Editorial staffs and investigative reporting units have been decimated, and the quality of the coverage has suffered grievously. More and more, news outlets have needed to rely on wire services and other secondary sources of information. At the highest levels, press access has become more important than objectivity, and the tendency to coddle powerful figures to maintain that access has defanged some of the best reporters of our generation.

14 percent of adults in the U.S.–that's 32 million Americans–can’t read. Click to Tweet
Education hasn’t fared much better. Public schools–and public school teachers–have been under attack in this country for years. Teachers are underpaid and overworked, and often have to buy supplies with their own funds, this in one of the wealthiest countries on Earth. The existence of the public school system itself is under threat, with critics advocating for private school “vouchers” that would replace the state’s responsibility to provide public schools.

On a deeper level, our culture’s respect for expertise and scientific knowledge has been eroded, called into question by those who seek to discredit climate change or evolution to further their own agendas. The people who create textbooks for our primary school students have been successful in shoehorning creationism into our science books across the country, to be weighed on the same basis as evolution theory.

These things have had a profound effect on our populace. According to the U.S. Department of Education, fully 14 percent of adults in the U.S. are unable to read and write. That’s 32 million people. More tellingly, 19 percent of American high school graduates  can’t read.

Meanwhile, at the college level, education has become just another business in America. Big money sports have taken over university budgets and priorities; both coaches and top executives at our schools are now paid like corporate CEOs, money that should be going into academic programs, scholarships and student services.

When you can’t be bothered to properly educate your citizens, you shouldn’t expect your democracy to work. If you produce a nation that is dangerously full of idiots, eventually those idiots are going to make a colossal error at the polls. And here we are in 2017, morning in Trump’s America.

Now, we see the new president has tapped evangelical figure Jerry Falwell, Jr. to lead his task force on education. It’s a hypocritical, antagonistic move, and tells us we can expect more attempts to inject religion into our classrooms.

This is no mere difference of opinion. This is an issue that was settled by the U.S. Supreme Court over a half-century ago: according to the highest law of the land, religion has no place in our schools. But somehow, we still need to have this conversation. Every day we hear about the dangers of religious extremism, but now we have a president who wants to turn the clock back to when the bible was every student’s most important book, and reinstitute religion in the classrooms. It’s a sepia-colored retrogressive fantasy, one which will only worsen the already abysmal state of our public school system.

Betsy DeVos - Joe Content

Betsy DeVos Pulls Facts Out of the Air at her Senate Confirmation Hearings Last Week

Make no mistake: what these people want is to dismantle the public school system. Trump’s choice of Betsy DeVos for Education Secretary makes that clear: DeVos is a longtime advocate of vouchers and other “school choice” programs that aim to weaken public education. And judging from her remarks to the Senate, outside of her distaste for them, she knows embarrassingly little about public schools. Her nomination can only be viewed as a provocation, and if confirmed she will be the proverbial fox guarding the hen house.

People like Betsy DeVos and Jerry Falwell, Jr. would like to see an America in which education isn’t a right, but a product you pay for, just like anything else. We’ve already gone too far down that road: witness our last election. Unless Americans want to get used to unqualified leaders like Trump, we’ve got to defend public education at all costs.

It’s a matter of priorities, and a society that has no commitment to education has no claim to democracy. If you agree, please call your Senator today and make it known that you oppose her nomination for Secretary of Education. It’s going to be close–so don’t sit this one out.

Editor’s Note: Betsy DeVos was confirmed on February 7th when Vice President Mike Pence cast the tie-breaking vote in the Senate.  This setback only underscores the urgency of the situation, and the need to tell our elected representatives at every opportunity that we support public schools.