Friday, March 6, 2009

Remedial Civics Classes

Proposed Pulpit editorial topic, to deliver at First U of Abq this summer:

"One of my pet peeves is the lack of knowledge our citizenry has of the basic operations of our government (not UUs, of course) you have a take on what is needed to ensure that your generation knows such things as how many branches of government we have, their functions, what is contained in the bill of rights, what federalism is, etc., etc.? How can we hope to engender equal rights for all in all circumstances in the face of...well...ignorance concerning what "equal rights" means? Do we need to start remedial Civics classes?"

Rough shape from which the editorial will be carved:

It's fast becoming time for me to step back as the voice of youth. After all, I'm legally an adult, and I've legally been an adult for over two years now, which is half the total time one really gets to be a "youth". This is, then, almost overstepping. I hope you'll indulge me - I have just a little left to say about youth, and at least in this congregation, I've been a bit of a mouthpiece for my generation. Consider this, then, my swan song. Fittingly, it shall be a song of politics - I am nothing if not political. Perhaps more meaningfully, it is about the very edges of politics, that periphery so unfamiliar to talking heads and so prevalent for everyone else.

I'm a theory junky. I love the big picture - it's why I care about politics in the specific, and not justice as a broad category. My mind delights at the machinations across the macro level. I am, you could say, a bit of a wonk. Which is well and fine for me. But it places a tremendous amount of distance between myself and what I'm actually studying. Decisions about politics happen on the macro level, but politics is experienced every day in very personal ways. There are some easy examples of this - Raise your hand if you've ever been to the Department of Motor Vehicles. Okay, you can stop your grumbling and put your hands down. Yeah, I know, right? Awful place. But that, right there, is the end result of about a century of politics figuring out how to combine people and cars. Heck, there's even a school of thought out there which says the government can't make that decision; of course, that's taking me straight back to wonky. And this is about the very, very personal. Going to the DMV is easily one of the most benignly unpleasant experiences of a person's life, and that's the first place youth go to be confirmed in the eyes of the government as having adult competency. The policy, the deliberations, the behind-the-door decisions: "well, okay, we need to do it, but it'll be very expensive. Unless we pay poorly, and then we guarantee our public gets generally mediocre service. Still, I'd rather do that than ask them to pay more taxes - oh, let's just make it suck", that is all irrelevant to the person waiting in an interminable line to fill out lots and lots of forms.

Let's try a different one. Raise your hands if you attended public school. Now keep your hands in the air you ever broke a school rule. Okay, great - some of you are honest. Now, keep your hands in the air if, when you broke a school rule, you were escorted to the principals office by an armed police officer? Ah - so you're the post-columbine generation. Glad to see a few of you here this Sunday.

So that, that's where politics happens. I'll go ahead and say that I think armed cops in schools are a sign of a police state. And I'll make that even creepier by saying it's not all that bad, once you get used to it. I mean, I know it's wrong, but it's something bad that one outgrows. So long as adulthood is less policed than childhood, temporary injustices and inhumanities are tolerated. Of course, it's important to emphasize that "tolerated" and "accepted" aren't synonymous. People can tolerate a lot of bad, but people will accept very little of it as permanent and irreversible.

Last big question - hands up for anyone here who here as ever made something and put it online? Well, congrats yo you all. Any of you used music in a video and had it legally threatened? No? Well, I guess the RIAA is busy these days, so it might have slipped through. I'll speak for myself, then - I'm a little annoyed at all the transfers of rights that happen to me when I put my creative content online. And more than that, I'm kind of terrified at the places where government can take art and hold it up as a threat to commerce. And if you're afraid I'm getting a bit too wonky on this one, it's because the issue necessitates it.

If a youth, in regular civilian life, runs into government-created obstacles, the youth will then do one of a few things. First, circumvent it - the easiest way to interact with the government is to break rules and then be really clever about it. This works out great for the youth, but it undermines the whole "rule of law" principle upon which society is based. The other thing the youth could do is figure out how to make the law work on the periphery. My blog is creative commons licensed, which was a whole area of wonk-i-ness that I had no idea existed until I started caring about internet culture.

And that's what's fascinating about this generation. Yes, we may not inherently know everything we need about our government, but we are, in the words of an anonymous commenter online, "of a generation that values knowing where to find the answer over how to find the answer". We have all the knowledge available to understand our society at our fingertips, and as soon as it becomes useful to us, we'll make great use of it.

And right at our fingertips are where we have the remedial civics classes. No, everyone won't go out of there way to learn even the full set of basics. But on that edge of politics and daily life, that bleeding edge where the two run into each other, people will figure it out. Problems will be found, hypocrisies exposed, and laws either subverted, ignored, or challenged. Where government doesn't make sense, laws will be improvised and new social arrangements will be found until law catches up with society. There's no need for a new, sweeping re-education about what it means to be a citizen in this nation. So long as we treat people, and especially youth, as citizens, they'll figure out what rights are their's. More importantly than that, though, they'll figure out that wonderful little bit about the social contract - we are the mandate of heaven. If our government doesn't act in our best interest, we have both the power and the obligation to
change that. And, and I firmly believe this as almost an article of faith, that so long as the knowledge is out there, we will find it, and so long as we can find it, we will use it.

It is a Unitarian cliche to quote Marget mead and say "Never doubt that a small, group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has." There is a lot of truth in that statement - but it overlooks the seachange made possible by an untold number of interested, casually motivated citizens, for whom politics is part of the game, but it is just a part. We are living the civics courses we need. Raised in this church, in the tradition of youth empowerment, there was never any doubt in my mind that politics was a part of life that one is allowed to partake in. Much as I love to pile praise upon this church, last summer's election campaign was the clearest indicator that we aren't the only group that takes youth empowerment and turns it directly into political action.

For all the doubt and skepticism about my generation that abounds today, we're a surprisingly capable bunch. We came of age after a national tragedy, were handed a dead-end war, witnessed the failure of apathy about politics in the form of a little thing named Katrina, and we're faced with "the great recession". And what have we done? Hard to say anything less than rise to the task. We've learned the civics lessons we need, and we are ready for an era of great reforms. I think, to understate the matter, that this bodes well for our nation. The kids today? The kids are alright.


Evan said...

I understand your point, and I agree that this generation (the first generation that grew up with computers) is OK (for the most part - there are still those of us who remain politically ignorant and apathetic, or even worse, politically ignorant and active). However, I don't share your seemingly rosy outlook. Just because our generation isn't as bad doesn't mean that the immediately-preceding generations haven't screwed up nigh-irreparably. We have to deal with "the great recession," as you so eloquently dubbed it; two wars that, if history is any guide, will not end any time soon; a strong trend away from skilled labourer jobs, making the economy top-heavy; skyrocketing college costs; and rampant overpopulation and its varried effects. Basically, I think we're screwed. But that's just me.

Kelsey Atherton said...


Eh, I agree on the scope of the problems facing us is huge, but that's secondary to my main point - we don't need remedial civics classes, because at this point life is one, and any solution will be solved through our generations careful goggle-fu. We'll figure out government as is, and then rework it into a solvable situation.

Evan said...

True, we don't need remedial civics classes, but as the scope of the problems facing us is huge, and the complexity of those problems is equally huge, we will quite soon be facing a real need for advanced civics classes, as it were. When "basic civics" is at our fingertips, "basic civics" becomes what used to be "advanced civics" because we have to understand that much more to be politically educated and informed.

Our reach will always exceed our grasp. That is to say, the political knowledge required for active and informed participation in the system will always exceed that which is immediately available and has become common knowledge.

Kelsey Atherton said...

Well, that's where division of labor comes in. Knowledge of all the intricacies of the political system isn't essential for everyone - intimate knowledge of the one part that's confounding a person individually is, and I think that's much more doable. Lessig and more or less a handful of others became the go-to people for all the laws of cyberspace, and that allows everyone else with a vested interest in cyberspace to follow them and support their efforts, without knowing the system as fully as they do. So long as we have about a dozen lessig's in every field, and the capacity to be aware and channel support to them, we stand a good chance.

Grandma Helen said...'s me again. And I must disagree with your assertion that each person needs only knowledge of that part of government that is confounding him/her. Of course, every person cannot develop knowledge of ALL the intricacies of our political system, but how do you think we got into this mess if it were not for the unfortunate apathy of most of those eligible to vote? No one doubts the CAPABILITY of any generation, yours, mine, etc. It's not the capacity that causes problems, it's the absence of education designed to ensure that people know how their system works, local, state, and federal...and how it can fail them if they do not act assertively. And I am just as concerned about MY generation as I am about yours...but I think it's getting too late for mine. You have time. And it's not the DMV you need to worry about. Or public school. Figuring it out on the fly will get you what we've got now. That's how we got here. It's not good enough. Helen

Grandma Helen said...

Just to make my point, here's an abstract from a recent Pew Research Paper to back up my concerns.


William A. Galston

School of Public Affairs, University of Maryland, College Park

▪ After decades of neglect, civic education is back on the agenda of political science in the United States. Despite huge increases in the formal educational attainment of the US population during the past 50 years, levels of political knowledge have barely budged. Today's college graduates know no more about politics than did high school graduates in 1950. Recent research indicates that levels of political knowledge affect the acceptance of democratic principles, attitudes toward specific issues, and political participation. Contrary to findings from 30 years ago, recent research suggests that traditional classroom-based civic education can significantly raise political knowledge. Service learning—a combination of community-based civic experience and systematic classroom reflection on that experience—is a promising innovation, but program evaluations have yielded mixed results.

Kelsey Atherton said...


Perhaps I'm being a bit glib. I don't mean to say that a lack of knowledge is unimportant - I believe that having knowledge is essential. But I think that the apathy which enabled such a lack of is gone, and that people are going to be able to figure out what the need in the immediate now, and that both the motivation and capacity to stay abreast and politically aware is possible.

Also, this is the generation that voted 2/3rds in favor of a president who promised both greater civic engagement and more college aid with community service attached. The apathy is gone. I think high schools themselves (as well as middle schools) need better civics programs, but I don't think the problem is a lack of available or ingrained knowledge. The problem is a system that makes politics unpleasant and thus encourages apathy. Politics has, as I've seen it over the last 20 or so years (though, really, about only 4 of them as dimly aware and about 8 as more aware), been a wretched zero sum game, and the stakes seemed both irrelevant the outcomes seemed inevitable. IF we want civic engagement, we have to promise it as both meaningful and as constructive to a person's being. Having the knowledge to make sense of that system is essential, and does lead to a lot of political efficacy. But it won't motivate people to act unless the apathy can be overcome, and if the non-apathetic want to act, they can find the knowledge they need. And they will, and they have.

That said, systemic reform wouldn't hurt, and providing freely available classes wouldn't be a bad idea either. In my mind that isn't vital.