It is that time in the school year when one who has spent the better part of three decades teaching government takes stock of the enthusiasm students have for that topic. There is cause for concern and that concern seems to deepen noticeably with each passing year.
Time was that a topic casually introduced to a roomful of 120 mostly freshmen in American Government 101 would invariably shut the class down for the remainder of the period. The instructor only need close his/her notebook and referee. Throw out such typically incendiary topics as abortion, gun control, the war of the moment or virtually any environmental issue and the debate was likely to commence in earnest. A few things were usually quite apparent when these heated discussions broke out. First, many of the students held strong opinions about these respective issues. Secondly, they had given thought to and had indeed articulated their feelings about these issues in prior discussions and thirdly, these students were able to verbalize in detail what the role of government should or should not be with regard to solutions to issues about which they were so passionate.
The thrill for the professor, other than being able to revel in an impromptu, lively debate that he helped to instigate, was the ability to watch these frisky 18-year-old political novices separate themselves at the gut level into conservative and liberal camps and then defend those positions. Oh, for the good old days!
By now the reader has probably grown accustomed to the startling findings of research projects related to the level of understanding of civics in the United States. In the past, knowledge of our unique form of government and our civic responsibility was basic to any education beginning as early as kindergarten. Many tests have demonstrated that such knowledge basic to American citizenship has fairly dramatically declined in importance in recent years. We may suggest a number of reasons why we have reached the crisis point in civic education that we have. And no, don’t make the usual customary leap on to the backs of hard working school teachers.
There is, however, a role or even some blame that can be attributed to the education establishment in general. Our necessary increase in emphasis on science and math education has, to a significant extent, crowded out a great deal of the consideration that might have otherwise been accorded civic education. Some have even been heard to express the notion that science and math are for the smart kids and social studies are for everyone else.
As a related matter, the premium being placed on national test scores gleaned from mechanically gradable multiple choice tests is apparently a recently emerging negative factor in students’ abilities to verbalize the importance of civic knowledge and involvement. It is quite clear in the college classroom in recent years that the ability to think through and explain matters related to the role of government has suffered from neglect.
A new and developing phenomenon has to do with a pronounced disdain for government in general. There was a time when students would arrive on campus clamoring for the chance to be involved with government, to work in political campaigns, and to intern for starvation wages in Washington, D.C. The numbers who fit this category seem to be declining. It is clear from discussions with these students that they have a decidedly negative view of government in general. From their comments it is evident that many of these negative opinions were formed around the dinner table at home.
Finally, the display of animosity between the two entrenched political parties occupying the governing environment is obviously taking its toll. Indeed the ability to teach government as the way that a representative form of democratic government compromises to serve the people is being impeded. Students and budding young political enthusiasts are becoming less familiar with a calling to make government work and are instead being fed a steady diet of the evils of compromise and of an overly stated failure of government to accomplish anything of value.
With those being elected to make policy being unwilling to compromise, American government loses the value of the constantly negotiated tension between conservative and liberal governing ideologies. Several of the studies on the condition of our civic education and awareness have speculated that current conditions will lead to a drop in participation and a dramatic decline in the faith that all of us invest in our “one of a kind” Democracy.
Thus, it would seem to be imperative that we make certain that those who are headed toward adulthood never doubt the institution of American government and that they feel free to vigorously debate its policies. Furthermore, the ability to negotiate, compromise, and make policies that work for the people most be restored to prominence as qualities prized by those whom we elect. Then perhaps government may avail itself of its share of our best and brightest young people once again.
» Dr. William Martin Wiseman is director of the John C. Stennis Institute of Government and professor of political science at Mississippi State University. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.