I was walking through the Ghent district of Norfolk, Virginia, the other day. Ghent is one of Norfolk’s most affluent sections of town. The streets are lined with old brick homes with stately looking facades and shrubberied lawns. Mixed among the homes are beautiful old churches, small gardens, and parks. It was a nice summer day. Not too humid and there was a nice gentle breeze. The only sounds in the air were birds chirping. It was a nice place and the perfect day to be alone with your thoughts and take in the scenery.
As I was walking up one sidewalk I saw what appeared to be, from a distance, a big birdhouse of sorts. But it wasn’t. Much to my surprise it was part of the neighborhood’s “Little Free Library.” A young lady sitting on some steps nearby saw me take the pictures and could see I was fascinated by what I’d found. She said, “Those Little Free Library boxes are all over the neighborhood.”
Books are the carriers of civilization. Without books, history is silent. ― Henry David Thoreau
Now here is a piece of good news. According to Gallup polling, visiting the local library remains, by far, the most common cultural activity Americans engage in. It’s nice to know Amazon hasn’t put libraries out of business yet.
For the most part, I think libraries have remained relevant in the cultural landscape because Librarians have adapted to the changing times fairly well: Bringing in advanced technologies—computers, Wifi, digital, etc, etc,—and continuing to be innovative in sponsoring various events at libraries that attract young families. So let us applaud the librarians and the local government officials who’ve continued to support them at budget time.
With that said, I’ll add that while it’s encouraging to see how well libraries are doing, it would be even more encouraging if we knew Americans were actually reading good books. The Gallup poll tells us that Libraries are being used and visited, but that doesn’t mean Americans—especially adults—are actually reading more quality books. The jury is still out on that.
For example, when visiting my local library recently I noticed all the computers were taken up by someone researching (or surfing). I notice people in the various conference rooms, and I usually see a few young families with small children walking the aisles or sitting in the children’s area looking through a stack of books. But typically I don’t see a lot of adults checking out or turning in stacks of quality history, biography, or science books. Of course I’ll note that I have no idea how many adults check out books via digital audio or print, which can be done online. So maybe I’m wrong. I hope so.
But then maybe it’s just me, but I don’t often hear many people talking much about the subject of some sustained reading they’ve been involved in. That requires sustained attention and an interest in learning and the mystery of things, which, at the moment, seems to be a declining thing in America. And I completely understand that some people may not care for reading—tragic though that may be. Maybe they’re just not interested or too busy.
I just tend to feel that a democracy—especially one that is “of the people, by the people, and for the people“—is hard to maintain when a sizable amount of the population appears to be terribly uninformed or just plain ignorant about the nation’s history, government, policies, social challenges, or things like basic science. We can’t properly defend our own or our family’s self interests, better yet the nation’s, if we don’t understand enough to know whether the choices we’re making are actually serving ours or our nation’s interests at all. Many of us, for example, vote for policies or people that are in direct opposition to our interests. And believe me, maintaining the rule of law and the democratic institutions that protect your individual freedoms is in your interest.
A lot of us uncritically adopt the opinions of others—from our family, group, favorite media source, or some other talking head on TV. But the measure of our education and autotomy is when we get to a point where we can intelligently challenge (openly or in own mind) our relied upon sources of information—by weighing and analyzing in light of our own personal readings and observations and then being able to change our mind on a topic or cherished belief….and then having the courage to say it.
Knowledge and education, of course, aren’t a guaranteed cure for human folly and prejudice. Only a fool who hasn’t read History could honestly think that. Educated people can be just as willing as anyone else to ignore their conscience, twist facts, and advance deep seated prejudices.
But what deep and focused reading can potentially do is introduce us to ideas that may gradually crack our caked prejudices and inherited world views and open us to the idea that maybe what we’ve believed all along is wrong or misinformed, or at least in need of some updating. That maybe we need to rethink some of our beliefs about people, our society, and the world. That is how positive change begins, how freedom and democracy have advanced.
I should add, that along with quality books and literature, the arts typically aim at doing this, especially serious films and other performing arts. They can expand our ability to empathize with others—open us to feeling our shared humanity. Note, that’s one big reason authoritarian rulers immediately shut down writers and artists when they take over. Genuine art is subversive in the authoritarian’s world view.
Of course I can’t leave out the reading of books that elevate our scientific grasp. As we read about science and the methods of scientists and the incredible amount of experimentation and research put into their findings, we learn how successful the scientific approach to knowledge has been in promoting human flourishing and, in the long run, democracy itself. As we look back through history we see that science and democracy tend to rise together—a phenomenon to be discussed at length in another post, eventually. With an education in science (reading science books) we learn to think more systematically, more empirically, about things and ideas and the opinions of others. And, in addressing public policy, that’s a good thing.
And so I’ll close with encouraging you to go to the library, check out some books, or buy books at the store, and then read those books whenever you can. Hopefully you’ll learn, grow, see and feel more deeply.
“Any nation that expects to be ignorant and free,” Jefferson said, “expects what never was and never will be.” And if the gap between the educated and the uneducated in America continues to grow as it is in our time, as fast as or faster than the gap between the rich and the poor, the gap between the educated and the uneducated is going to be of greater consequence and the more serious threat to our way of life. We must not, by any means, misunderstand that.
Does educating school-aged kids in civics encourage greater political involvement when they reach voting age and beyond? A recent Government Executive magazine post got me to thinking about it. As Western style, developed nations go, America has one of the lowest voter turnout rates. Which is incredibly odd and discouraging when you think about it. We’re supposedly the greatest experiment in democracy the world has ever known, and yet so many “proud” Americans don’t even bother fulfilling the basic requirements of citizenship. Now, there are various reason for this, some more legitimate than others, but considering what’s at stake most of the excuses offered seem pretty lame. So most Americans get the government that other people elect. And don’t fool yourself—if you’re one of these people—that you’re not making an impact by staying home. One may chose to forgo one’s civic responsibility and not show up at the polls, but one cannot actually avoid voting regardless. David Foster Wallace puts it like this:
By all means stay home if you want, but don’t bullshit yourself that you’re not voting. In reality, there is no such thing as not voting: you either vote by voting, or you vote by staying home and tacitly doubling the value of some Diehard’s vote.
Anyway, I don’t recall any formal civics education during my elementary school years. If there was it didn’t leave any impression on me. As a pre-schooler, and during my early elementary school years, what civics education I do recall came from watching Schoolhouse Rock! at home, not from the Virginia Beach, Va, school system. If you grew up in the 1970s, 80s, and early-to-mid 90s, I suspect you may recall this video:
As a higher-schooler, I do recall taking a class called Goverment. It’s actually one of the few classes from my high school years I can still recall fairly well. As part of that class, we formed a mock Senate. I was elected—more like sold out—as the moderator, or President pro tempore as it’s called, of our mock U.S. Senate. So yeah, damn it, I really had to pay attention. Using parliamentary procedures, I would mediate the debate and announce the results of various votes on bills put to vote. Mr. Smith, our teacher, would periodically pause the debate to add important considerations that, being high-schoolers, and not yet having adult responsibilities, we might want to consider before voting. Mr. Smith’s aim was to promote critical thinking. He was encouraging us to ask probing questions, and to consider the implications of the bill to society at large.
We carried on this mock Senate for about a week. After about the 2nd day as President pro tempore, like any petty tyrant, I started to enjoy abusing my power a little. So a number of hands would go up to address the Senate during debate. While scanning the room, in my head, my inner monologue would be something like, “That guy’s a chump, forget it, not calling on him…that guys a know-it-all who’ll bore us to tears, not happening….” and then I see the better option…”Oh yeah, the chair gladly recognizes the smoking hot Senator from Virginia….Madam, you may have the floor for as long as you’d like.” Okay, so power corrupts—especially a teenager. But hey, there was a lesson in this. I, at least, learned firsthand why the Founders purposely spread power across various institutions—to ensure power was not centralized…and thus potentially, inevitably, abused.
So I had one class in high school that I could say was directly related to civics. That was it as far as my formal civics education went. Now, one could argue that the various history classes I went through during those years were civics related. Sure. No doubt. I agree in large part with that idea. History does inform one about our nation’s past and the struggles we’ve overcome and the leaders that have made a difference. The history-as-civics approach is what a lot of people seem to emphasis. For example, I noticed in the GEM post the writer used the lack of historical knowledge as the example for “the sorry state of civics education today.” He pointed to surveys showing that:
Only 13 percent of the 1,000 survey respondents, nearly all American-born, could say when the Constitution was ratified (1788, if you were wondering), and fewer than half could identify which countries the U.S. fought against in World War II.
and, hilariously pathetic, that:
Among the most egregious examples from the survey: 2 percent of respondents identified climate change as the cause of the Cold War.
Okay, putting the climate change/Cold War hilarity aside, I’m not at all surprised by these results. I won’t expect a large percentage of Americans to know off-hand what year the U.S. Constitution was ratified. And while I find it pretty sad that “fewer than half” of the respondents knew who the U.S. fought in WWII, it’s probably not bad considering the concern that most people show—which isn’t much—for historical literacy. Let’s face it, history isn’t what a majority of Americans read. The biggest selling category of books are novels, works of the imagination, not history and the examination of factual events, characters, and the interplay among them.
But while I myself love American history, I don’t think we can rely on just history in-general having the impact that, say, a specific history course in American Democracy might have. Or how about a year long high school (2 semester) course specifically all about American Civics?, which would specifically be aimed at explaining our political system AND emphasizing the importance of voting. A course like this could examine the number of very close votes in our history involving significant issues (and politicans) that have impacted our society, both positively and negatively. The course I would design would track the great debates of our history. It would get into the weeds of them. My history-as-civics course would focus on political history, like say, Lincoln’s election and what he was able to accomplish, or FDR’s election and the world he created that so many Americans loved and still benefit from today. Another important aspect of my civics course would be counter-factuals. What if Lincoln had not been elected? What if slavery continued on into the 20th century? What if FDR had not pushed his New Deal reforms? Would the nation have held together? These are all fair questions and should be part of a civics education. Understanding the specific historical issues at stake, the importance of voting and the democratic process, trying to grasp the implications of alternate courses—some good, many bad—that America could have taken as a nation, would probably have a greater impact on young people and their perspectives on the importance of voting and the levels of turnout election day.
With all this said, is promoting a big push in civics going to really, truly, noticeably improve voter turnout down the line? Well, none of us know. In my case I can’t say what little formal civics education I got encouraged me at all. It was more than likely my college education and just life experience itself that turned me into a dedicated voter. But certainly young people given the knowledge and understanding are at least more likely to realize what’s at stake. My guess is, yes, it will help, but not to the levels we’d like, like say an 80% turnout rate, unless further measures are also taken.
So what are the further measures I’m alluding to? Well, first, election day should be a national holiday. There should be strict laws protecting employees from any adverse actions against them for taking the time off to vote. People who work long hours and in very labor intensive jobs may not have employers that are okay with them standing in line, during a work day, for an hour plus to vote. Then add in the various forms of voter suppression that go on in certain states. Things like closing the number of polling stations down in high population areas, and aiming certain voter laws at suppressing the turnout of minority voters. The simple and honest truth is, Why would any politician or political party actively try to limit or make it harder to vote in a democracy? Well, we all know why. That’s why I believe we should have stricter voting laws imposed on states to ensure elections are as open and fair as possible. The Voting Rights Act, which was recently crippled by the Supreme Court, isn’t enough in my view. The idea is to make voting easier, which encourages people to vote. Our democratic republic does not belong to any one party, it belongs to the people. And the people should be pushing to make sure it’s the people, via the mass vote, who will decide the direction of our communities and our country.
So yes, let’s push for more civics classes across the country. That’s a start. These classes should be designed to specifically emphasize the duties and responsibilities of citizenship. And let’s also push for more laws that make voting in our democracy more protected and easier for everyone.
January 21, 2019
I believe in correcting a memory if I’m able to determine it was wrong. In this case, I’m also sure the City of Virginia Beach school system would appreciate it, too. Recently while going through an old polaroid picture album mom gave me, I found a couple of my old 5th grade report cards she had kept. Well, there it was. On one of the report cards, in the top row, were my grades for Citizenship. I see my grade was a consistent “S -“. The minus sign, I suspect, meant little Jeff was a little less than Satisfactory but not quite Needing Improvement….or it was just code for “we’re cutting little Jeff a break.” So I was inaccurate to imply in my post above that the Virginia Beach school system might not have provided any formal civics education before I’d reached my high school years. They clearly did.
I was also reminded of just how unimpressive a student I was in the 5th grade!
The forgoing generations beheld God and nature face to face; we, through their eyes. Why should not we also enjoy an original relation to the universe? — Waldo Emerson
As my last two posts have shown, I’ve been watching, and remembering, some great commencement speeches. Well here is the last one I’ll post about for this season, sent to me by a good friend, and it’s a good one.
Oftentimes the challenge you have when attempting to impart wisdom or insight is to be able do it without necessarily seeming like you’re trying to do it. This is true more so when the topic has a larger, more broader, social meaning—i.e. political meaning—and the speaker is addressing an ideologically diverse group. The master strategist knows, it’s best to avoid the direct approach and resort to oblique order.
Well, in the masterful sense, that’s what Danielle Allen does in her recent commencement address at Pomona College. It’s a short speech, and at first I wasn’t drawn in because of Ms. Allen’s very colloquial delivery, but then the message, the insight, started to hit me right between the eyes. Watch for yourself: