Is Civics the Answer?

Does educating school-aged kids in civics encourage greater political involvement when they reach voting age and beyond? A recent Government Executive magazine post got me to thinking about it. As Western style, developed nations go, America has one of the lowest voter turnout rates. Which is incredibly odd and discouraging when you think about it. We’re supposedly the greatest experiment in democracy the world has ever known, and yet so many “proud” Americans don’t even bother fulfilling the basic requirements of citizenship. Now, there are various reason for this, some more legitimate than others, but considering what’s at stake most of the excuses offered seem pretty lame. So most Americans get the government that other people elect. And don’t fool yourself—if you’re one of these people—that you’re not making an impact by staying home. One may chose to forgo one’s civic responsibility and not show up at the polls, but one cannot actually avoid voting regardless. David Foster Wallace puts it like this:

By all means stay home if you want, but don’t bullshit yourself that you’re not voting. In reality, there is no such thing as not voting: you either vote by voting, or you vote by staying home and tacitly doubling the value of some Diehard’s vote.

Anyway, I don’t recall any formal civics education during my elementary school years. If there was it didn’t leave any impression on me. As a pre-schooler, and during my early elementary school years, what civics education I do recall came from watching Schoolhouse Rock! at home, not from the Virginia Beach, Va, school system. If you grew up in the 1970s, 80s, and early-to-mid 90s, I suspect you may recall this video:

As a higher-schooler, I do recall taking a class called Goverment. It’s actually one of the few classes from my high school years I can still recall fairly well. As part of that class, we formed a mock Senate. I was elected—more like sold out—as the moderator, or President pro tempore as it’s called, of our mock U.S. Senate. So yeah, damn it, I really had to pay attention. Using parliamentary procedures, I would mediate the debate and announce the results of various votes on bills put to vote. Mr. Smith, our teacher, would periodically pause the debate to add important considerations that, being high-schoolers, and not yet having adult responsibilities, we might want to consider before voting. Mr. Smith’s aim was to promote critical thinking. He was encouraging us to ask probing questions, and to consider the implications of the bill to society at large.

We carried on this mock Senate for about a week. After about the 2nd day as President pro tempore, like any petty tyrant, I started to enjoy abusing my power a little. So a number of hands would go up to address the Senate during debate. While scanning the room, in my head, my inner monologue would be something like, “That guy’s a chump, forget it, not calling on him…that guys a know-it-all who’ll bore us to tears, not happening….” and then I see the better option…”Oh yeah, the chair gladly recognizes the smoking hot Senator from Virginia….Madam, you may have the floor for as long as you’d like.” Okay, so power corrupts—especially a teenager. But hey, there was a lesson in this. I, at least, learned firsthand why the Founders purposely spread power across various institutions—to ensure power was not centralized…and thus potentially, inevitably, abused.

So I had one class in high school that I could say was directly related to civics. That was it as far as my formal civics education went. Now, one could argue that the various history classes I went through during those years were civics related. Sure. No doubt. I agree in large part with that idea. History does inform one about our nation’s past and the struggles we’ve overcome and the leaders that have made a difference. The history-as-civics approach is what a lot of people seem to emphasis. For example, I noticed in the GEM post the writer used the lack of historical knowledge as the example for “the sorry state of civics education today.” He pointed to surveys showing that:

Only 13 percent of the 1,000 survey respondents, nearly all American-born, could say when the Constitution was ratified (1788, if you were wondering), and fewer than half could identify which countries the U.S. fought against in World War II.

and, hilariously pathetic, that:

Among the most egregious examples from the survey: 2 percent of  respondents identified climate change as the cause of the Cold War.

Okay, putting the climate change/Cold War hilarity aside, I’m not at all surprised by these results. I won’t expect a large percentage of Americans to know off-hand what year the U.S. Constitution was ratified. And while I find it pretty sad that “fewer than half” of the respondents knew who the U.S. fought in WWII, it’s probably not bad considering the concern that most people show—which isn’t much—for historical literacy. Let’s face it, history isn’t what a majority of Americans read. The biggest selling category of books are novels, works of the imagination, not history and the examination of factual events, characters, and the interplay among them.

But while I myself love American history, I don’t think we can rely on just history in-general having the impact that, say, a specific history course in American Democracy might have. Or how about a year long high school (2 semester) course specifically all about American Civics?, which would specifically be aimed at explaining our political system AND emphasizing the importance of voting. A course like this could examine the number of very close votes in our history involving significant issues (and politicans) that have impacted our society, both positively and negatively. The course I would design would track the great debates of our history. It would get into the weeds of them. My history-as-civics course would focus on political history, like say, Lincoln’s election and what he was able to accomplish, or FDR’s election and the world he created that so many Americans loved and still benefit from today. Another important aspect of my civics course would be counter-factuals. What if Lincoln had not been elected? What if slavery continued on into the 20th century? What if FDR had not pushed his New Deal reforms? Would the nation have held together? These are all fair questions and should be part of a civics education. Understanding the specific historical issues at stake, the importance of voting and the democratic process, trying to grasp the implications of alternate courses—some good, many bad—that America could have taken as a nation, would probably have a greater impact on young people and their perspectives on the importance of voting and the levels of turnout election day.

With all this said, is promoting a big push in civics going to really, truly, noticeably improve voter turnout down the line? Well, none of us know. In my case I can’t say what little formal civics education I got encouraged me at all. It was more than likely my college education and just life experience itself that turned me into a dedicated voter. But certainly young people given the knowledge and understanding are at least more likely to realize what’s at stake. My guess is, yes, it will help, but not to the levels we’d like, like say an 80% turnout rate, unless further measures are also taken.

So what are the further measures I’m alluding to? Well, first, election day should be a national holiday. There should be strict laws protecting employees from any adverse actions against them for taking the time off to vote. People who work long hours and in very labor intensive jobs may not have employers that are okay with them standing in line, during a work day, for an hour plus to vote. Then add in the various forms of voter suppression that go on in certain states. Things like closing the number of polling stations down in high population areas, and aiming certain voter laws at suppressing the turnout of minority voters. The simple and honest truth is, Why would any politician or political party actively try to limit or make it harder to vote in a democracy? Well, we all know why. That’s why I believe we should have stricter voting laws imposed on states to ensure elections are as open and fair as possible. The Voting Rights Act, which was recently crippled by the Supreme Court, isn’t enough in my view. The idea is to make voting easier, which encourages people to vote. Our democratic republic does not belong to any one party, it belongs to the people. And the people should be pushing to make sure it’s the people, via the mass vote, who will decide the direction of our communities and our country.

So yes, let’s push for more civics classes across the country. That’s a start. These classes should be designed to specifically emphasize the duties and responsibilities of citizenship. And let’s also push for more laws that make voting in our democracy more protected and easier for everyone.

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