Between 10 and 15 years ago, political science professors discovered a renewed interest in civic engagement. Retired US Senator Bob Graham and his collaborator Chris Hand published the first edition of their book “America: The Owner’s Manual” in 2009, saying the best hope for the revival of American democracy lies in teaching a new group of people involved and interested. citizens who begin their journey of civic activism by bringing about change at the local level, usually on non-partisan issues. The authors give many examples and advice. The American Political Science Association (APSA) hosted its first annual teaching and learning conference in 2005, while the Journal of Political Science Education had its debut the previous year.
I met Graham at the MPSA’s annual conference, after I started teaching the book in an introductory political science course. In 2012, I took a sabbatical working with Graham to develop a high school curriculum. We tried to convince secondary school teachers to adopt it. Unfortunately, they told us that while they were excited about our ideas, they feared opposition from school administrators, who were deeply suspicious of any controversy or potential lawsuits.
I also read the 2003 book by John Hibbing and Elizabeth Theiss-Morse “Stealth Democracy”. These University of Nebraska professors have found that many Americans have little interest in civic engagement. After all, it often means attending lengthy meetings that, at best, lead to negotiated compromises. In a more recent article, they also point out that many forms of civic engagement involve people banding together with like-minded people, and voluntary associations often make decisions by consensus. These lessons are inapplicable to policy-making in a diverse democracy, where deep divisions are inevitable and where important decisions are rarely made by consensus. Hibbing and Theiss-Morse argue that students should be taught the “barbarism” of politics, that is, heated negotiations over issues involving deep disagreements.
Later, I moved civic engagement projects into the state and local government classroom, where they fit better. This shift has produced many successful projects, such as pressuring a city government to reclaim the site of an abandoned construction project. Another student group has created an information portal for students looking for off-campus housing to learn about their rights and options.
Meanwhile, in the introductory course, I set myself a new goal: to teach students to be informed and diligent voters. I use videos to let the speakers themselves (not me) describe the beliefs of liberals, conservatives, libertarians and communitarians. I chose Barack Obama for liberal, Ronald Reagan for conservative, author Ayn Rand for libertarian, and Pope Francis for communitarian. I also incorporated flash polls into the classroom that students took with their phones. This semester, I introduced a Teaching Civic Engagement course to teach these and other lessons to future teachers, along with assignments to create lesson plans for high school.
Today, our democracy is on life support. Social media, along with real and fake market news outlets, allows Americans to associate only with like-minded people more than at any time in the past 100 years. Meanwhile, K-12 schools are under increasing pressure to marginalize civics instruction, not only due to potential controversy, but also pressure to reallocate more time to STEM fields. , technology, engineering and math), seen as tickets to good jobs in adulthood. Yet, if our children and grandchildren are going to live in a democracy, it is essential that they also take the time to teach civics, and teach it well.
Michael A. Smith is a professor at Emporia State University.