It started when my friend and I decided to see a handful of the Oscar-nominated movies one week in January.
Monday was "American Sniper," Tuesday was "Imitation Game," Wednesday was "The Theory of Everything" and Thursday was "Selma."
By the end of the week we had 1. eaten too much popcorn and 2. seen four incredible movies, all based on true stories that we had previously known nothing about. Then, we realized there was a problem.
My friend turned to me during the credits of Selma. “Did you even know about this march from Selma to Montgomery?”
I replied that I had not. Sadly, we both expected Selma to be the name of a female character in the film.
We sat there as the credits rolled, momentarily stunned by the intense, impactful end of the film and also, the reality that our knowledge of important historical events was rather pathetic.
We proceeded to have a conversation while sitting in the movie theatre that lasted long after the lights had come on and the man with the broom swept up every last kernel of fallen popcorn.
Before that Oscar movie marathon week, I had known nothing about Chris Kyle’s accomplishments in Iraq, Alan Turing solving Enigma, little about Stephen Hawking and clearly, nothing about Martin Luther King Jr.’s march from Selma to Montgomery, which caused Lyndon Johnson to sign the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
This act secured African Americans' right to vote, and is considered the most effective piece of civil rights legislation ever enacted in America.
After the realization that our historical and cultural knowledge was startlingly limited, my friend and I discussed ways to become more engaged and informed citizens.
Individuals like Chris Kyle, Alan Turing, Stephen Hawking and Martin Luther King Jr. have shaped and improved the world in which we so freely live today, and we owe it to them to know their stories.
Even if we consider ourselves educated, a lot of the most vital news and information — both historical and current — can fall by the wayside in the midst of our chaotic lives.
Thus, I began thinking about simple, convenient ways to become a more engaged citizen. Here are six:
1. TheSkimm: The easiest way to consume news
If you’re one of those people who feels like reading the news is a daunting task but you know it’s something you should be doing, TheSkimm is your perfect solution.
TheSkimm is a daily email newsletter that two young ex-NBC news producers created to give the public a quick way to learn the day’s most important news stories.
The newsletter (delivered to your inbox at 6 am each morning) is written in conversational, often humorous language that still manages to be as informative as any major news source.
It’s broken into sections with entertaining, relatable headings, like “What to say when your bf is worried about his hairline,” and “What to say when you find typos after sending an all-staff email.”
You can read the newsletter in less than five minutes on your morning commute and walk into the office, full of confidence.
Never again will you be the only one in the room who’s oblivious to the latest Putin drama or the status of Obama’s immigration plan.
Plus, Oprah’s a Skimm’r, so obviously you should be, too.
2. Listen to podcasts
Listening to podcasts on long car trips or your commute to work is a great alternative to music. There are thousands of podcasts from which to choose, many of which are free and can be instantly downloaded to your phone.
Like television shows, podcasts vary in genre, but most will teach you something about unfamiliar subjects.
For example, "Serial," one of the most popular podcasts on iTunes in 2014, is extremely entertaining, but at the same time, provides insight into holes in the justice system and raises awareness about the thousands of prisoners who never receive fair trials.
Other informative podcasts include "TEDTalks," "RadioLab," "The Podcast History of our World," "Stuff You Should Know," "NPR: Fresh Air," "How to Do Everything" and many more.
You can also look up a subject you’re interested to learn more about and chances are, there is a podcast about it.
3. Set your homepage to NYTimes.com
When you open your browser, the latest headlines will magically appear in front of your eyes if you have your homepage set to popular news sites like NYTimes.com.
It’s an easy, quick way to consume important news throughout the day, as you hop between email and Google searches and other sites. Changing your homepage is a small change that will make a big difference.
4. Become familiar with your government
Take an hour to familiarize yourself with your local government.
If you’re one of those people who, like me, finds it hard to become invested in government affairs, you can still take the time to at least learn the names of your leaders and what they stand for.
Our government is like an invisible protector; it works to keep our streets clean, our trains and busses running, our garbage disposed and oversees so many other many other essential systems that we often take for granted.
Additionally, mayors and governors usually have the most influence when it comes to changing local policy.
If you’re interested in learning more about a specific issue, you have a complaint or feel that something could be improved, call your governor’s office. Voicing your opinion is likely to have more of an impact than you might think.
5. Watch documentaries
Like listening to podcasts instead of the radio, watching documentaries instead of movies is a great way to delve into an unfamiliar subject.
There are thousands of incredible documentaries on a range of subjects — everything from killer whales to Hugo Chavez to the art of The New York Times crossword puzzles.
Not only are documentaries interesting and enlightening, but they also make you a smarter, more knowledgeable person.
If you don’t like documentaries, watching films based around historical events (like Selma, Lincoln, etc.) is another great way to educate yourself while relaxing with a movie.
6. Play Trivia Crack on your phone
Trivia Crack is an addicting game you play on your phone, but unlike Candy Crush, it will actually make you smarter.
The game is broken into six categories: science, history, sports, entertainment, art and geography.
If you answer incorrectly, the app tells you the correct answer so even though you’ve lost your turn, you learn something.
You can play against your friends and family, but just a warning: the game truly is crack.