The Basic ‘Basic’ Problem

In a recent blog post, I tried to make the point that the Presidential campaign should address the basic issues that underlie the more political problems used as talking points. This morning, I received the following reply from an astute friend:

“I fear that the chances of that happening are slim to none.  Democracy requires an informed and engaged electorate.  One of the most basic underlying problems facing America right now is the dwindling percentage of our electorate that can qualify as informed and engaged.  Politicians are merely responding accordingly.”

He is absolutely right. For many reasons, our electorate is not engaged in the political process or informed on the relevant facts, and this lack of engagement seems to be the basic-basic problem that lurks beneath all the problems I wrote about last week.

Happily, there could be a way to create the kind of electorate a healthy democracy truly needs and requires. Doing so would not be quick or easy, but with sustained effort, we could ensure that the next generation is more politically active and aware than our present populace.

The apathy or ignorance of our citizenry has many causes, but I think most people would agree that our educational system has failed to recognize and address the problem.

I recall that about 40 years ago, when I worked in the Federal government, I would come home from work and my then 13 year old and last son would ask me what I was working on. “GOOD for him to ask,” I would think ,and start in on whatever I was working on. It was never long before he would declare the subject “boring, Dad, boring” and go off to find a more enjoyable way to spend his time. My pride was punctured! But, worse I missed the important point.

What I should have taken away from that experience is that the nuts and bolts of how government works, or fails to work, can be elusive even to even a bright, inquisitive kid. But, why is that?

The problem is largely how the subject is taught in school. Much of the work of government is abstract, turns on minor matters of procedure, and is influenced by obscure institutional logic. The fact is that these things are not boring only to thirteen year olds, but to almost everyone.  How can we solve that problem? How do we take policy out of wonk-world and bring it happily into the average American home?

The answer, strangely enough, might lie in People Magazine. There is a reason why People and its siblings are so popular. People care about PEOPLE!

I recall taking American history. In my class, we were expected to know the name of the Secretaries of State, and that being able to regurgitate those facts seemed more important than knowing what kind of person a given Secretary was, and what he (only men had held the position at that point) was trying to accomplish, and how he went about trying to achieve it.

That course converted real persons and their stories into discrete facts to memorize, and largely removed the fascinating connective tissue and contradictions that make real lives so interesting. (It also failed to answer a question I found most pressing at the time: Why did a high ranking government official have the same title as an office assistant?)

Such type a course was not a tasty recipe for engagement with history or civics and  therefore is unlikely to lay the groundwork for real engagement with that subject later in life.

Fortunately, I recognized that each Secretary of State had a whole story that was going untold in my classroom, which piqued my curiosity. I started to go way beyond the course requirements to quench my thirst, and that set me on the path I remain on today. Sadly, such a revelation does not happen for most children. That I ended up so interested in these things may have been an accident of nature or nurture, but such accidents cannot be depended on to raise the level of awareness and engagement in a population as a whole.

If more schools, administrators, and teachers understood that civic history is, above all, a story to be told through the lives of many diverse and interesting people who lived them, perhaps more people—young and old—would find the subject more interesting, relevant, and memorable.

By changing the way we teach about our government, we can likely and hopefully create a  more interested and qualified universe of voters, who will in turn could produce a more interesting and qualified group of Presidential candidates.

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