I couldn’t help but notice how many blank bubbles there were on the ballot under the incumbents in our local election. While some seats were contested, most were not. There seems to be a lack of interest to govern.
As the dust settles from recent elections, national attention in the media regarding civics education in the United States has heightened. From an Annenburg Public Policy poll, only 26% of Americans can name all three branches of government. That means 74% of Americans don’t understand the basic premise of our representative democracy! Similarly, voter turnout is at an all-time low since 1996, and the National Education Assessment Progress (NAEP) civics exam from 2017 reported only 23% of American eighth graders met basic level of understanding on civics.
I can believe it. I remember in college a friend saying she was majoring in civics; I didn’t really know what that meant. I learned how a bill becomes a law from morning cartoons. If you were a Saturday morning boob tube watcher in the 1980s, you probably remember those public service commercials produced by School House Rock. We learned all kinds of useful information from those animated shorts, like how milk becomes cheese and most memorably how a bill goes through the legislature from the House or Senate committees, to the floor, to the next chamber of Congress, and then to the president for signing.
My eighth-grade teacher made us memorize, verbatim, the Bill of Rights and then chose another amendment to study. We didn’t do too much critical thinking around these rights, but we at least we read them. Besides, how can you think critically about something you’ve never read.
My generation might be the last to have any hope in governance. It helped that my best friend’s aunt was married to a Congressman, so I had a peripheral awareness that legislators were real people. But as I look across the landscape of civic engagement, it’s mostly grey hair.
Cynicism about government among young people appears to be non-partisan. Young people rally around causes. They crowd-source money, they march the streets, and they demonstrate around topics of deep importance. It’s not that they are not involved, they just aren’t involved directly in the political system. Who can blame them, really? Sitting through most public proceedings are about as fun as a root canal. Rallies and marches — more fun.
They all point to the corruption, the big money, the special interests, the corporate greed, the political ambitions for re-election with little regard for their constituents, the electoral college, the gerrymandering. I don’t dispute these all have credible claims, but could it be the pure lack of solid foundation of how the government is structured that also breeds the cynicism? It’s much easier to be critical of something we don’t understand, right? And almost impossible to be engaged. Ignorance is the foundation of intolerance. Could we be breeding a culture intolerant to democracy?
Well at least here at Methow Valley Elementary, you’ll be happy to know that civic engagement is alive and well. The second-grade classrooms recently wrapped their unit study on “how we organize ourselves.” Each class got a chance to form a local town, elect a mayor, select a town planner, and erect a city full of bustling businesses. The fine residents of Sanders City, Millersville and Bakersville took much pride in their communities and invited visitors last Friday for a tour and shopping. I had a manicure at the salon in Sanders City and a fitness and heart check at the doctor’s office in Bakersville. So at least the second graders are off to a good start.
Also promising, Washington state recently adopted a new graduation standard to teach one-half credit of civic education that covers: government organization and procedures; state and federal constitutional rights and responsibilities; current issues addressed at each level of government; electoral issues; completion of the civics component of the federally administered naturalization test; and the importance in a free society of living basic values and character traits as defined by the state. That seems like a lot to pack into a half-credit, but at least it’s a start. If we don’t educate our children about governance, who will govern?