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.

Danielle Allen’s Commencement Address at Pomona College

The forgoing generations beheld God and nature face to face; we, through their eyes. Why should not we also enjoy an original relation to the universe?  — Waldo Emerson

As my last two posts have shown, I’ve been watching, and remembering, some great commencement speeches. Well here is the last one I’ll post about for this season, sent to me by a good friend, and it’s a good one.

Oftentimes the challenge you have when attempting to impart wisdom or insight is to be able do it without necessarily seeming like you’re trying to do it. This is true more so when the topic has a larger, more broader, social meaning—i.e. political meaning—and the speaker is addressing an ideologically diverse group. The master strategist knows, it’s best to avoid the direct approach and resort to oblique order.

Well, in the masterful sense, that’s what Danielle Allen does in her recent commencement address at Pomona College. It’s a short speech, and at first I wasn’t drawn in because of Ms. Allen’s very colloquial delivery, but then the message, the insight, started to hit me right between the eyes. Watch for yourself:

The Atlantic’s write up on Allen’s address.

Jon Meacham Gives Commencement Address at Umass Lowell

I’m currently reading Jon Meacham’s new book, The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels. Released on May 8th, it has already become a NYTs number 1 bestseller. It’s a book about the times in American history, like now, “in which the politics of fear were prevalent—[and] a reminder that periods of public dispiritedness are not new and a reassurance that they are survivable.”

Yesterday, Jon Meacham gave the commencement address at UMass Lowell. He provided these points of welcome wisdom gleaned from his decades of writing history and biography.

So what can we learn from the past as we engage the present:

That the perfect should not be the enemy of the good.

That compromise is the oxygen of a free government.

And that we learn most from the past not by looking up at people from our history adoringly, or looking down on them condescendingly, but looking them in the eye and taking their measure as human beings, not as Gods, so that we can learn how they overcame the obstacles of their time.

We Need True Visions of Greatness

franklin d roosevelt motorcade_001_0
President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR)

Thumbing through a book of essays by Alfred North Whitehead, I came across these words I’d underlined years ago while reading the book:

Moral education is impossible apart from the habitual vision of greatness. If we are not great, it does not matter what we do or what is the issue.

Whitehead was defending, or praising really, the superior nature of classical education (reading classics) in shaping a strong moral character. It’s a model based, in large part, on the study of great people in history. Thomas Carlyle once said “The history of the world is but the biography of great men.” The idea is that people primarily shape events and history by their actions. By studying the lives of renowned people we learn about “the evil that men do,*” or the nobility they can rise to, or the compromises they’ve made between these two extremes. We witness the subtleties of human personality. We see that life really isn’t, in large part, black or white but black and white. We learn just how human these great people actually were while also learning how they overcame many of the same difficulties we all face in spite of life’s head winds and the internal struggles of their own character. Through it all we can get a vision, even if not in perfect focus, of greatness in the human realm.

Whether people have an innate moral goodness or not is still debatable, but there is overwhelming scientific evidence that supports the idea that “the environment” has a big impact on the moral development of people. The ancient Greeks and Romans didn’t have the research, but they knew this to be true by experience. So ancient students not only learned poetry, history, music, math and about the lives of great Greeks and Romans, but their masters (parents, teachers, or tutors) were responsible for modeling the moral ideal and enforcing the civic/moral behavior expected from a man or woman of a civilized society. And then as the students moved into society and began families and became active citizens, they were expected to uphold these civilized values and model them to the next generation and to their fellow citizens. At least that was the ideal. It’s a conceptual idea captured in the ancient Greek word paideia.

The classical ideal stayed with Western civilization for a long time and finally started breaking up in the early part of the 20th century. World wars and the need for advanced educations in science, math, and technology pushed aside (understandably) the studying of the lives of ancient Greeks and Romans. Of course classical education didn’t die all together but evolved over the past century from strictly a study of the ancients to the study of the Great Books.

In this competitive world, students naturally seek educations that advance their job prospects, not necessarily their personal enrichment, civic awareness, or moral world view—of course, without a good degree of the latter, the former is likely to shrink as wealth and power pools around the few at the top…hmmm, kind of like it is now. No ideal is perfect and certainly western civilization has not been all good in practice or implication, but it’s an ideal or set of beliefs (moral and political) that have made the West the most advanced, most prosperous, freest collection of societies the world has ever known. This is worth remembering as we witness the growing attacks, and disillusionment with, its foundations from those on the far left and far right politically.

For Whitehead and the ancients, greatness, in the moral sphere, was mostly a product of social osmosis. If we are exposed to a “habitual vision of greatness,” via our readings (education) and life examples, there’s a good chance that vision will take hold and become a part of us. Regardless of whether anyone cares to read ancient texts or biographies in general, it’s a model with strong merit and, in my view, the best way to shape and lead a truly great society.

Our nation could really use some visions of greatness in both the realms of political and business leadership right now. It’s sorely lacking. We need leaders, especially in government, willing to sacrifice—like, say, an FDR—their own personal or class interests for the sake of others and the greater good of our society. But we’re seeing so much of the opposite right now. On the private sector side corporate statesmanship seems mostly gone and the tide of big business executive “greed,” the Gordon Gekkos of business (who now also run our government), have seized the moment, like an oligarchic plague over democratic Athens.

We don’t have the help of classical education as a shaper of our society anymore, and, of course, even if we had there’s no guarantee things would be any different. But we can still hope there’s a return to the ideal that modeling greatness matters at all levels of leadership in our society. We can still hope some people actually have and believe in a noble and dignified vision of society and are determined to live by it. We can still hope—and demand via our civic duty to vote!—that we have government leaders who model nobility in actions and words. We need leaders, in both business and government, with a noble vision that’s inclusive and dignified and not just one that’s all about their personal wealth, influence, or tribal loyalties. There are so many reasons Americans need a vision of greatness in Washington D.C. right now. But instead of a Cicero or a Marcus Aurelius we have a Nero…that tweets while the nation yearns.

The change starts with each of us. We need true visions of greatness. Let’s expect and demand a selfless and dignified vision of greatness from our government and business leaders. Our future, and that of our children, is at stake.

The Education Nudge

Yesterday I had the distinct honor of being my youngest son’s guest for VIP Day at his elementary school. Okay…so Mom had to work and I filled in. Anyway, my son’s elementary school reminds me a lot of the one I attended. I have some fond memories of my elementary school years: the field days, the book fairs, the Halloween parties at school, the lunch room gatherings, the learning experiences (of course!), and the teachers who made a difference. I still remember Mrs. Gillett teaching my 1st grade class the alphabet. I still remember Mrs. Chalmers, a 3rd grade teacher, teaching us math, and Mrs. Wilson, a 4th grade teacher, teaching us science. There’s no doubt those early years had an influence on me and my classmates, as our minds were nudged in certain directions. How far and to what extent we can never know for sure. But the clay was soft and impressions made easily.

Of course elementary schools teach the basics in reading, writing, math, etc, etc. But what’s forgotten, or not noticed until you walk around an elementary school like I did yesterday, is that elementary schools also impart or encourage other forms of education that aim to develop character. There are no classes that aim specifically at character education, at least not that I’m aware of, but character education is instilled many other ways. For example, inside my son’s school lunch room, above the entrance, is the following banner:

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The Dictionary Project is an educational charity that hands out free dictionaries to elementary school students. My son got his dictionary last February. Now you might be thinking there are little signs and banners all around the lunch room, but that’s not the case. This particular banner stood out. I don’t recall any others actually. While the teachers may not be asking the two questions on this banner, the environment, combined with repeated exposure, combined with curiosity, do their work. The students sit in this large room for lunch and various other gatherings and events all the time. The students read this banner every day and to some degree absorb its questions about truth and fairness in everything they Think, Say, or Do. (Of course the Dictionary Project also enforced bad grammar by forgetting the needed comas in the first line! But hey, that’s why we have teachers…to correct bad grammar!)

After getting home yesterday, I asked my son about the banner and he repeated the words on the banner verbatim. Whether he pursues the answers to those two questions is a different story, but at least the questions are imprinted in his little mind. And that’s a good start.