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We Need a Civics Bootcamp

Today’s politics offer a great learning opportunity

By Jon Cassie

One month into to the administration of Donald J. Trump and even the most reasoned and balanced reporter would have to acknowledge that it has been unlike any other presidential first month in the history of this country. For good or for ill, the behavior and rhetoric of this administration bears the striking hallmark of the personality, tendencies, obsessions and rhetoric of the president who leads it.

The challenges this behavior presents to the people of the United States have been and are still being argued back and forth in no small part because it [this behavior] is so uncharacteristic of past presidential behavior, particularly in the first weeks of that president’s new administration.

This president, fixated on personal sleights and the perception of illegitimacy that seems to come primarily from his own imagination, routinely says things that are demonstrably untrue, indefensible or, perhaps most worryingly, corrosive to the democratic culture, principles and institutions that we as Americans have built since we gave up our colonial identities in the 1770s and began forming a national culture. The great podcast Presidential told the story of all previous office holders and the episode about James K. Polk was noteworthy for its discussion of Polk’s predilection for lying and how disorienting this was to his contemporaries, who believed it diminished the dignity of the presidency for the president to lie. Considering their views of 11, what would they say about 45?

The educator faces numerous challenges navigating a national discourse environment structured along these lines. When officials of the government lie in ways that can be easily proven, it is in the educator’s interest to use this lie as an example of what we in the United States don’t do as a fundamental part of our political identity. But in this almost singularly polarized period, calling a lie a lie is seen as partisan or perhaps by some as unpatriotic. It is my belief that lies will always beget such a level of disrespect and disapprobation that they will be corrected without the need for the educator to take heroic action. But the president has also used the powers of his office to argue that widespread voter fraud undermined the scale of his victory. Moreover, he repeatedly attacks the free press on the basis that its questions are personally hostile and prone to creating what he calls “fake news.”

When the people are repeatedly told by their leadership that millions of fraudulent votes were cast in a national election when that did not happen, it creates a problem for a democratic society. How might we address this problem? By placing a far greater emphasis in our national education conversation on civics than we presently do. The No Child Left Behind Act was designed with the goal of ensuring that all students received a quality education and that literacy and mathematics skills took pride of place among all skills we cared about as a society. I would argue that the 21st century has taught us that while literacy and mathematics are important, if we are going to have a democratic, liberal society to pass on to the next generation, we have some serious work to do to save it. The answer – a civics bootcamp.

What would a Civics Bootcamp do? It would help young citizens answer these questions:

What are our national institutions?

How were they designed? How do they work? It is essential that young people know how the structure of our public life was designed intentionally by the Constitution’s framers to work a particular way.

Once students understand the design, the question of whether that design actually works in a 21st century society can be asked and answered.

What is citizenship and what are your rights and responsibilities as a citizen?

Too few young people realize the full spectrum of natural rights that the Founding Fathers wanted to reference and speak to. We speak about life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness in a sort of off-hand way these days, but in their time, the Founding Fathers meant to cover some specific notions. What are they?

What happens when they don’t work properly?

For a citizen to understand her responsibilities to the rest of her fellow citizens, it is instructive to investigate how the nation is going about its business. Is the way that Congress is conducting itself normal? Appropriate? Reflective of the will of the people? If not, what should the people do? What did the nation look like when our systems were really dysfunctional, like in the 1850s?

What is the relationship between federal, state and local governments?

Who, in essence, does what? – What is a law and how is it passed? For those of us of a certain age (I’m 49), this question was answered succinctly by “Schoolhouse Rock.” For younger folks, we need to find a way to share that answer.

What is the purpose of the federal bureaucracy?

There’s endless moaning and groaning about government spending and waste and so forth. But what do the millions of people employed by government actually do? Nominally they are carrying out the people’s business. What does that mean? What does it mean to have a professional civil service? What did it look like before the Chester Arthur administration created the structure of the permanent bureaucracy?

Why must some work be conducted by the government, rather than private enterprise?

Because some things are essential services, but they are impossible to perform if the expectation is they can be done in a profitable way. Self-evident, but one wouldn’t know this based on the contemporary rhetoric.

No program can do everything, but refocusing our energies on our civic relationships, paying attention to our national institutions and devoting ourselves to the enduring legacy of this country is surely worth as much time and attention as reading or math standards. Which legislator is ready to write and put forward the Civics Advances Democracy Act of 2017? I’m happy to help write the legislation…

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