I like the story about two economists on a walk who fell into a deep hole. One economist asked, “How will we get out?” The other answered, “I’m going to hypothesize a ladder.”
Trump has revealed that our democracy is in such a huge hole that a crazy egomaniac with lots of money has a good shot at gaining unforgiving power. I get the feeling that if gasoline was $7 a gallon and unemployment was 15%, the American citizenry would elect someone like Trump, or someone much worse.
The question is, “How can our constitutional democracy get out of its deep hole?”
We put a lot of faith in the hypothesis that the ladder that takes us up to a better society is education. But, our enormous and expensive educational system is focused on educating students in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math. It has failed to educate a citizenry with the skills, knowledge, attitudes and experiences needed for effective and active citizenship.
Though the state of civics education is much bemoaned, nothing changes. Have you noticed the efforts of the actor Richard Dreyfuss? He’s made lots of thoughtful impassioned speeches and has established a 501C(3) called The Dreyfuss Initiative to provide leadership in improving civics education in American schools. The former Supreme Court Justice, Sandra Day O’Conner has an intense interest in improving civics education. She started a website and organization called iCivics . Just last week, the Secretary of Education, John B. King Jr, gave a speech urging big improvements in civics education. (See: Education Secretary says civics education should encourage activism)
Schools largely ignore advice like Dreyfuss, O’Conner and King offer. It’s unrealistic to suppose that schools voluntarily will put additional effort into civics education unless the criteria for evaluating schools is changed to reward that effort. School leaders have been reduced to thinking like their students — if putting in a lot of effort doesn’t improve our school grade, why do it?
Another reality that depresses civics education in public schools is the fact that meaningful civics education is potentially disruptive. Schools rely on taxes and do everything possible to gain the trust and support of taxpayers. The last thing a board wants is for teachers to stir up a controversy that will bring criticism to the school. For example, here in Kettering in this election we have six proposals on the ballot to change the Kettering city charter. I think it is a safe bet that the wonderful opportunity for civics learning that Issues 31-36 provides has not been utilized to inspire meaningful discussion and debate at Kettering High School.
What the election of 2016 reminds us is that democracy is fragile and that its vitality requires a great deal from the citizenry. Increasingly it seems the American citizenry is incapable and unprepared to shoulder its responsibility. It is a frightful realization that we may be headed to a time when the citizenry simply does not possess the capacity to maintain a democracy.
Youth own the future. The hope for the future is that youth will be better citizens than their parents. The task of developing in youth the capacity needed for effective citizenship in a democracy is too important to be left exclusively to the schools. It takes a village to bring youth to civic maturity. The problem is, in this modern age the village, itself, has faded. We are missing important civic structures that a village would have had — a commons, a city square, a town hall — where individuals could participate as part of a real community, listening to each other, debating and trying to understand issues of importance to their community. We are missing the vital civic life of a village where youth could learn by good example and where youth could be inspired to emulate the attitudes and values of thoughtful elders.
In answer to the question — “How can our constitutional democracy get out of its deep hole?” — we need to hypothesize a ladder composed of the energy, zeal and idealism of youth. Youth with their powerful social media skills could be the force that vitalizes our constitutional democracy. How can this ladder be constructed is the question. What is it that could galvanize youth toward meaningful and useful civic engagement?
In my vision of what is possible, I’m imagining a network of youth organizations — a local chapter in each local community. The idea is that these local organizations would empower youth to show leadership in building important civic structures in their local communities. We learn by doing and if youth are to learn civic leadership, they must have the opportunity and encouragement to practice civic leadership. I believe that many youth, if given the opportunity, would rise to the challenge of being a leader in his or her local community, and that many adults, if given the chance, would support creating such opportunity.