This essay appeared in the newsletter of Concerned Citizens Defending Democracy, a new organization dedicated to “promoting democratic institutions, deliberative dialogues, and racial justice and reconciliation.”
Sam Smith – While we repeatedly discuss the problems our country faces, we pay little attention to how we teach our children to deal with these matters as they grow up. A Brookings Report described the issue well:
“The 2018 Brown Center Report on American Education examined the status of civic education and found that while reading and math scores have improved in recent years, there has not been the commensurate increase in eighth grade civics knowledge. While 42 states and the District of Columbia require at least one course related to civics, few states prioritize the range of strategies, such as service learning which is only included in the standards for 11 states, that is required for an effective civic education experience. The study also found that high school social studies teachers are some of the least supported teachers in schools and report teaching larger numbers of students and taking on more non-teaching responsibilities like coaching school sports than other teachers. Seventy percent of 12th graders say they have never written a letter to give an opinion or solve a problem and 30 percent say they have never taken part in a debate-all important parts of a quality civic learning.”
That wasn’t my experience because I grew up with a father who had worked for the federal government and then became involved in Philadelphia local politics. At the age of eleven I was stuffing campaign envelopes for a guy successfully running for city treasurer. I also took part in a presidential campaign debate at my elementary school. And if I had any doubts about politics, they vanished when some candidate came to a gathering at our house and stood on a nice living room chair to give his talk. To this day, I remember looking over at my mother and seeing a smile on her face. If he can get away with standing on one of her chairs, I thought, politics must be really important.
As we get older it’s easy to discount such youthful experiences but just like math and spelling, democracy is something you have to learn in order to use it. And we’re doing a lousy job of it for a number of reasons, including the notion that working with others is far less important than one’s own competitive success.
It’s not just in the classroom where we could change things. Schools, libraries, museums and churches, for example, could open their gathering spaces for more public debate and discussion on local and national issues. They don’t need to take sides; they just need to host the gathering. For example, among the important meetings in church basements I attended back in the 1960s was one planning opposition to extensive new freeways in our city and another that kicked off the DC statehood movement.
We also need to encourage the media to not only report the problems of our society but the positive news as well. In recent decades, for example, the media has become obsessed with ethnic crises yet fails to note that 15.1% of our marriages are now bi-ethnic while only 14.2% are all black. Thus, in about one in seven weddings, couples have found assets within mixed ethnicity that CNN has yet to discover. And where are the stories about schools and other institutions with successful multicultural programs that kids and adults like?
I grew up in a family of six kids and so learned early that not everyone in life is going to agree with me. What worked was finding things we shared enthusiasm and interest in common, Larger communities are much the same and democracy is the tool not to beat down the other guy but to find what we can share and do despite our differences.
The important thing is that, just like with math and music, you can’t remember how to do it if you don’t practice.