If we want our kids to achieve the American Dream, they need to peer into democracy’s dark recesses and learn from our past.
Do you subscribe to #NeverTrump? Or are you merely exasperated by the fact that the country that won WWII, went to the moon, won the Cold War, and produced Google can settle for Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton as its leading presidential candidates while its economy has more in common with Greece than Sweden? Either way, you are probably wondering how we can get ourselves out of this mess. One seemingly obvious, but completely overlooked solution, is to start teaching our kids “gritty” civics and political history – more John Oliver and Stephen Colbert meet Machiavelli, and less “Schoolhouse Rock.” If our kids are going to achieve a better future, we need to give them the political knowledge and historical perspective to do so.
Despite the fact that as few as 8 States now require civics courses in their high school curricula, education reformers have focused primarily on policy changes designed to measure teacher and school performance and improve accountability, increase parental choices for where their children attend school, and improve public school curricula through the adoption of Common Core standards. These are necessary reforms, but they will be insufficient if we hope to leverage public education to ensure that the American Dream remains within reach of all Americans. Not only must we teach our kids the skills they need to overcome the financial challenges we have created for them, but we must further reform high school curricula to provide students with the insights and historical perspectives they will need to transform the calcified and dysfunctional democracy they are inheriting – one that is increasingly incapable of producing reasonable solutions to problems disproportionately affecting younger Americans (e.g., combatting fanatical Islamic terror, reducing gun violence, balancing environmental and economic concerns, funding infrastructure and R&D, and reforming entitlement programs).
The relationship between public finances and civics is just one of the many gritty civics lessons that our children need to learn. For example, although almost every State limits its ability to enact an unbalanced budget, the States owe trillions in debt, with at least $1 trillion of that in the form of unfunded pension liabilities. Despite popular support, the prognosis for pension reform is bleak because “politicians . . . have too often proved willing to use pensions to purchase votes [and secure campaign contributions] from [public sector] workers [and their unions]” – the very groups they must negotiate with over pension terms.
The fact that public sector employee unions generously contribute to the campaigns of the elected officials with whom they negotiate on pension matters is also one of the many campaign finance issues that is not being taught in our high schools. Before they reach voting age, students should have a basic understanding of state and federal campaign contributions and their limits, political action committees, disclosure rules, and key Supreme Court decisions on the intersection of the First Amendment and campaign finance – from Buckley v. Valeo to Citizens United on the one hand, and the Abood, Harris, and Friedrichs line of cases, on the other hand.
Although campaign finance is clearly gritty, no exploration of the dark recesses of our purportedly representative democracy would be complete without a discussion of the relationship between Congress’ 16% approval rating, the well over 90% re-election rate for Representatives, and the lack of independent redistricting entities used to curb political gerrymandering by state officials. (The same discussion needs to occur with regard to gerrymandering and the re-election rates for state and local officials). Voters seeking to change Washington should perhaps be looking to their state capitols rather than the presidential election, a point recently reinforced by John Oliver and the Economist when they discussed state legislation designed to make it harder for people to vote in our purportedly representative democracy. How many voters understand this aspect of federalism or the undemocratic history of ballot access restrictions?
Of course, how many high school students know that those who fail to heed the lessons of history are doomed to repeat them? Gritty political history, therefore, must be taught with gritty civics. If we are going to extoll the purported virtues of socialism, we should study Venezuela and the PIGS of Europe. Similarly, if we are going to celebrate the transformative nature of charismatic strongmen, we should study the rise and disastrous reigns of Benito Mussolini and Vladimir Putin. If we are going to applaud the prosecution of dissenting scientists, we should study the Catholic Church’s persecution of Galileo. If we desire laws that protect us from offensive speech, we should study the history of municipalities denying parade permits to gay and lesbian groups to shield the public from offense.
Thankfully, there are reform groups pressing the case for teaching civics, including Generation Citizen and the Center for Civic Education. But we need to do more, and we need to ensure that we teach gritty civics rather than a simplistic and idealized version of our democracy and its history. At the grassroots level, parents need to press their schools and their local school boards to require real civics instruction in high school. At the State and national levels, we need leading education reform groups, such as The 74, Students First, Students Matter, the Center for Education Reform, and others to press for gritty civics to become core components of high school curricula. Ideally, John Oliver and Stephen Colbert would use their bully pulpits to not only educate, but to advocate for these reforms as well.
Getting gritty civics into high school classrooms will likely be more difficult than implementing the Common Core. Elected officials from both parties have plenty of reasons to fear the scrutiny and accountability that would result from savvier and well-informed young voters. Poor performing public officials know very well that “sunlight is . . . the best disinfectant.” As parents, we have a choice. We can let public officials fail our children while hiding in the shadows. Or, we can become reformers who ensure our kids receive the education they need to create a future that burns bright.