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Erin Stoeckig: The silver bullet to a better ballot? It's education.

Socrates says: Don't be an uninformed voter.

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Erin Stoeckig, Post Bulletin teen columnist. (Ken Klotzbach / kklotzbach@postbulletin.com)

There are few phrases that provoke eye-rolls from entire classes as reliably as “socratic seminar.” It’s right up there with “Back in my day…” and “standardized testing.”

The theoretically engaging concept of formal, full-class discussions, generally based on text, is usually bogged down by stipulations like “everyone must speak twice” or “you must quote textual evidence," morphing it into a string of loosely-connected, pre-prepared talking points. I’d rather write an essay. These exercises, though, usually come with a little background on Socrates himself.

Though his teaching methods might suggest it, the revered Greek philosopher wasn’t an enthusiastic proponent of the democratic ideals his government was based on. According to his depiction in Plato’s Republic, Socrates regarded voting as a skill that should be reserved for those educated enough to use it wisely, fearing the election of popular but inept leaders by an uninformed majority.

It’s a valid criticism; we’ve all met people we wish didn’t have any say in the futures of our communities. They’re even more visible now that the internet has given anyone a platform to tell the world about their backwards understanding of one issue or another. But there’s no good way to cut these people out of our system as Socrates might have wanted. The problem with removing the voice of any group, no matter how uninformed or uninclined to actually use their vote, is that the issues important to them will more than likely be ignored.

We still have large swaths of our population that can’t vote, whether by circumstance or law. As a legal child, I can’t vote. This isn’t an injustice (I don’t really want any preschoolers whose main concern in life is whether different colored Play-Dohs have different flavors to decide my future either), but it does mean we have to depend on other people to speak to our interests. Parents and teachers usually do, and anyone who was once a child or cares about the future of their country probably should, but without these voices directly in our democracy, there’s a greater chance kids' issues will be underrepresented or even misrepresented.

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This is a problem that’s been addressed several times since the founding of America, when the Constitution granted voting rights to only 6% of the population. Our broader enfranchisement, which we view as incontestable progress, would probably rub some dead philosophers the wrong way, but the path to a better democracy remains Socrates’s suggestion: education.

In math, we’ve always dedicated time to exploring “real life applications” of whatever concept we’re working through, but there’s no denying the examples get progressively more elusive once you hit, say, negative numbers. (One particularly memorable word problem requested the location of the movie theater seat where you could see the whole screen without moving your eyes ... because eyeball movement is such a drag that everyone brings their yardsticks and protractors to every blockbuster.) I’m sure even elementary school teachers are asked for justifications now that you can ask Alexa for 2+2.

As much as we discuss it, nobody’s under any illusion that we learn math in school in case we encounter one of the few specific scenarios where it’s useful. We learn it to understand a process — to learn to think logically and use what we know to find what we don’t. The ultimate “real life application” is voting, using our critical thinking skills (another groan-worthy phrase) to seek out credible information, evaluate our own interests, and make an informed decision.

This primary day, vote wisely. Dead philosophers and non-voting teenagers agree: education, yours and the next generation’s, is the silver bullet.

Erin Stoeckig will be a junior at Mayo High School. Send comments on teen columns to Jeff Pieters, jpieters@postbulletin.com.

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