Tag Archives: civic education

Buy This Book!

I think I may be in love with Al Franken. In fact, I think he’d be a great President! (Of course, next to the one we have, my cat would be a great President–and I don’t have a cat. Still…)

I just finished reading Al Franken: Giant of the Senate. I recommend it highly–and not only for its humor. (But the humor is great.)

The book tells the story of Franken’s improbable voyage from Saturday Night Live (and other venues for less than decorous humor) to the U.S. Senate, and it is more informative than most textbooks if you want to learn about the political process, the operation of the United States Senate, the day to day job description of a Senator, and the pros and cons of a variety of thorny political issues.

As the flyleaf says, “it’s a book about what happens when the nation’s foremost progressive satirist gets a chance to serve in the United States Senate and, defying the expectations of the pundit class, actually turns out to be good at it.” It’s also “a book about our deeply polarized, frequently depressing, occasionally inspiring political culture, written from inside the belly of the beast.”

The book is a testament to democratic decision-making and public service, written by a mensch. (Google it.) Franken’s self-deprecating storytelling, his willingness to credit his staff and his family and even his constituents for his accomplishments, is particularly refreshing at a time when America’s Commander-in-Chief insists on taking personal credit for any event that is even remotely positive, whether he had anything to do with it or not. (Any day now, I fully expect him to take credit for the sun rising in the morning.)

If the real Al Franken is the same person who comes across in this book, he’s a great guy–down to earth, level-headed, self-aware–with a great sense of humor. (Genuine humor, when you think about it, requires a sense of proportion and an appreciation of reality.) Evidently, you can speak truth to power without being an asshole; you can be a committed progressive and still get along with equally committed conservatives; and you can take seriously your obligation to represent the people who live in your state without being a sanctimonious prig.

You can also learn how to be an effective “insider” without getting co-opted by “the system.”

The best thing about this book? It restored my faith in the possibilities of democracy. (Note the word “possibilities.”) Given Franken’s candid reporting on the current state of our nation, democracy is far from being realized, but it does remain a (tantalizing) possibility.

Buy the damn book.

The Evidence Keeps Accumulating…

Periodically, I use this blog to indulge a rant about Americans’ lack of civic literacy. (Regular readers are probably getting tired of my preoccupation with civic education–or more accurately, the lack thereof.) Be warned– I’m going to beat that dead horse again today.

A column written by Colbert King from the Washington Post has highlighted still another research project confirming Americans’ low levels of civic knowledge. 

King introduced the topic by noting what we might call “constitutional challenges” in Donald Trump’s Presidential campaign.

He proposed a religious test on immigration, promised to “open up” U.S. libel laws and revoked press credentials of critical reporters. He called for killing family members of terrorists, said he would do “a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding” terrorism suspects and suggested that a U.S.-born federal judge of Mexican heritage couldn’t be neutral because of his ethnicity. He whipped up animosity against Muslims and immigrants from Mexico, branding the latter as “rapists.”

When protesters interrupted his rallies, he cheered violence against them. He told a political opponent that if he won, he would “get a special prosecutor to look into your situation,” adding “you’d be in jail.” He threatened not to respect election results if he didn’t win and, in Idi Amin fashion, made the claims of a strongman: “I alone can fix it.” He publicly expressed admiration for authoritarian Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Cherished notions of religious freedom, a free press, an independent judiciary and the rights of minorities took a beating from him. The prospect of mob violence in his defense and imprisoning of political opponents found favor.

An electorate with even a basic understanding of the U.S. Constitution would have found these assaults on foundational American principles reprehensible. And in fairness, civically- educated Americans did recoil.

The problem is, we don’t have enough civically-educated Americans.

How did a pluralistic nation that propounds democratic values and practices come to this?

“This” not being the authoritarian in the White House who dismisses basic constitutional principles as if they were annoying gnats, but “this” — an electorate that looks past the disrespect shown toward democratic ideals.

That haunting question has occupied the minds of Richard D. Kahlenberg and Clifford Janey, two education scholars and writers who began to take a hard look at this fundamental domestic challenge long before November’s results came in.

Kahlenberg and Janey addressed the scope of the problem in a joint Century Foundation report released in November, “Putting Democracy Back into Public Education.” The report was also discussed in an article in the Atlantic, “Is Trump’s Victory the Jump-Start Civics Education Needed?”

Janey and Kahlenberg argue that our “schools are failing at what the nation’s founders saw as education’s most basic purpose: preparing young people to be reflective citizens who would value liberty and democracy and resist the appeals of demagogues.”

They said today’s schools turn themselves inside out trying to prepare “college-and-career ready” students who can contend with economic globalization and economic competition and find a niche with private skills in the marketplace.

As for preparing them for American democracy? Raising civics literacy levels? Cultivating knowledge of democratic practices and beliefs with rigorous courses in history, literature and how democratic means have been used to improve the country? Not so much or maybe not at all, they suggest.

This has to change. And in Indiana, at least, a number of us are committed to changing it.

Women4Change Indiana is currently launching an effort to increase civic education; I am heading up a subcommittee that will encourage the formation of book clubs around the state focused upon the history and philosophy of America’s constitution. We will also be enlisting volunteers who will advocate in their local school systems for inclusion of the “We the People” curriculum, which is now entirely voluntary. Research has demonstrated that We the People has a salutary, lasting influence on students who have gone through it.

Citizens will not–cannot–protect what they don’t understand.

If I Had a Magic Wand….

Yesterday, I wrote that America’s governing systems no longer work properly. I believe the original, basic premises of our approach to self-government remain sound, but our “delivery systems,” the mechanics of representative democracy, have become corrupted.

With effort, those can be changed. One of the great benefits of America’s constitutional system is its flexibility. Despite persistent cries of alarm from so-called “textual originalists,” our legal system has continued to work because it has been remarkably adaptable to “new facts on the ground.”

It is undeniable, however, that our 200+ year old ship of state has taken on some barnacles.

Compromises intended to keep slave states happy (the Electoral College, for example) are poorly adapted to modern notions of democratic fairness; early allocations of  federalist jurisdiction are increasingly ill-suited to a mobile, connected population. Etc.

Assuming (as I do) that Trump’s election presages a period of turmoil and civic unrest during which many laws and institutions will be challenged and found to be unworkable, or understood to be hopelessly outmoded, what changes should we try to effect once the fever breaks?

Here are a few I think have merit:

We should establish a national, nonpartisan commission to administer elections under uniform standards. Many countries have such agencies. It would maintain voter rolls (we have no idea what turnout actually is, because there is a lag time during which states don’t know when a voter moves, or dies, and there are great disparities between states in record-keeping, purges, etc.), establish uniform times for polls to be open, prevent voter suppression efforts, and generally insure a fair and equal election process.

We should get rid of the Electoral College,  gerrymandering and Citizens United.

At the local level, we should sharply limit the positions that are elected. There is no reason to elect coroners, recorders, auditors, township trustees and the like. Some of these positions may no longer be needed; those that are should be appointed by Mayors or County executives. Similarly, Governors should appoint Attorneys General and Superintendents of Public Instruction. Making a chief executive responsible for these administrative positions would improve accountability and decrease political infighting.

There are a number of steps we might take to increase vote turnout and make election results more closely reflect the popular will. We can make election day a holiday, and/or vastly increase voting by mail.  (America is highly unlikely to make voting mandatory, as it is in Australia, but we might consider a “none of the above” option.)

In addition to such mechanical “fixes,” we need a population that is at least minimally civically-literate. The emphasis upon STEM education is all well and good, but it should not be allowed to crowd out the humanities and especially civics education. “We the People” or an equivalent high-quality civics curriculum should be required for high school graduation.

And I want to put in a plug for a “New GI Bill”: Upon graduation from high school, students would enroll in a one-year program of civic service and civic education. Upon satisfactory completion of that year, the government would pay for two years of college or other post-secondary training. The program would be open to everyone, but marketed heavily to the poor and disadvantaged.

We have massive amounts of research confirming that most Americans—rich or poor—know embarrassingly little about the economic and governmental structures within which they live. This civics deficit is far more pronounced in poor communities, where civics instruction (as with other educational resources) is scarce. Because civic knowledge is a predictor of civic participation, one result is that poor folks don’t vote in percentages equal to those of middle-class and wealthy Americans.

When people don’t vote, their interests aren’t represented.

Giving students from disadvantaged backgrounds an opportunity for post-secondary education—and conditioning that opportunity on a year of civic learning and civic service—would do two extremely important things: it would give those students the civic skills they need in order to have a meaningful voice in the democratic process; and it would reduce the nation’s currently unconscionable level of student loan debt.

Those are my beginning agenda items. I’m confident that there are numerous other ideas for reconstituting and revitalizing America’s politics and our commitment to the goal of e pluribus unum.

We’re in the middle of a very painful lesson in what isn’t working; let’s start considering what would.

 

Testing…

I used to introduce my undergraduate Law and Public Policy class by administering a test–20 questions drawn from the citizenship test immigrants have to pass in order to become U.S. citizens.

I stopped because it was too depressing. Foreign students regularly passed the test; native-born students just as routinely failed it. So I’ve been intrigued by the recent effort to require American kids to pass the test in order to graduate from high school. Arizona was the first state to pass such a measure, and Sen. Kruse has advocated doing so in Indiana. 

Similar measures are under consideration in 15 states, according to Sam Stone, political director for the Civics Education Initiative, an Arizona-based non-profit group that is lobbying for the civics test across the country.

Stone told the newspaper that about 92 percent of immigrants applying for U.S. citizenship pass the test on their first try, but as few as 5 percent of high school students passed the test.

“Those are really poor numbers,” he said. “No matter how much knowledge you have, if you don’t know how to use that knowledge within our system of government, it’s not much good,” he said. “Our government was designed to be run by informed, engaged citizens. We have an incredibly dangerous form of government for people who don’t know how it works.”

No kidding!

So what are the pros and cons of requiring the citizenship test? The biggest pro is pretty obvious: it shines an important light on this country’s abysmal neglect of civic education. At the very least, students will have to learn the material covered by the test. If the past few years of high-stakes testing have shown us anything, it is that we don’t teach anything that isn’t tested.

And that leads to the “con.” A quibble, really.

In this era of “reform,” schools teach to the test, and a number of the questions on this particular test have a very tenuous connection to how our government actually works. (Knowing the date the Declaration of Independence was signed is nice, but distinguishing between the Declaration and the Constitution and understanding the role of each is more central to informed citizenship.) I would hope that passage of the measure–which I support!–would include a provision for updating the test as research gives us more information about what sorts of knowledge correlate most closely to civic participation and literacy.

But by all means, let’s send the message to young Americans that we expect them to actually know something about the country they will ultimately control.

 

 

 

 

Ignoring Civics at DOE

The U.S. Department of Education has published draft priorities for discretionary grant programs for next year and has invited public comment.

The current draft includes 15 priorities–none of which is civic education.

To read the department’s priorities you can go here   and scroll down the page. On the upper-right-hand corner of the page you will see the words “Comment Now.” I hope everyone reading this will enter a comment. The deadline is July 24. Tell the Department of Education to include civic education as a priority.

National Assessment for Educational Progress (NAEP) findings confirm that most of our students are not receiving a remotely adequate grounding in civics and government. Those findings are consistent with a massive amount of research documenting a widespread lack of knowledge about America’s political structure and government, and the omission of civic education from the draft priorities is inconceivable to me.

Basic civic knowledge operates like a common language–it allows us to communicate with each other. It is the foundation upon which so much else depends.

Please tell DOE that civics is essential, and that its omission is unacceptable!