Are we letting our civic infrastructure decay?

Schools opened across Florida this week and in many other states I expect. An article in my Sunday newspaper caught my eye and provided the idea for this post. The article stated for the first time in my county, minorities will make up the majority of students in the public schools.

Many of the kids that have come into our school district over the past year came here from outside the US not only qualifying some of them as ethnic minorities by definition, but also as immigrants. And the story stated that a third of the public school systems in Florida’s 66 counties now have minorities outnumbering traditional majority, or white students.

Demographers have been stating for years that diversity in America is growing steadily and the first signs of this dramatic shift will be among the 18 and under population. So what does this changing ethnic and immigrant makeup among our school children and in our society in general have to do with civics, government or public participation? Well, plenty, especially when paired with another trend occurring in our educational system.

This is a trend that has been emerging for some time in our schools. It’s the absence of civics and government courses included in the curriculum. I remember taking specific classes in government democracy and civics in my elementary and high school years. And I’ve seen, or rather, have not seen these specific subjects among the classes being taught in public schools today. I’ve found myself filling in the gaps of civics teachings or providing an understanding about how government and democracy works in casual conversations with my teen daughters –concepts I would expect to be covered in the classroom.

Going back beyond my school days, teaching civics and democracy in the classroom was a big deal. (I have a copy of an 8th grade, seven page civics test from 1954 at the end of this post on my blog. Take a look. Do you think you could pass this one using today’s information?)

If parents have to serve as a primary source of civics education for their children, using their prior schooling and personal experiences, then we can consider this to be a dwindling resource at best. Regardless of a parents’ upbringing, whether it was in this country or abroad, there exists a chipping away of the nation’s civic foundation and teachings of our system of democracy that is creating a vacuum of knowledge that will impact us as a nation and as individuals.

Of particular note is to consider this affect on minorities and immigrants. If we know these subjects are not being addressed through our schools, then how will this growing segment of our society gain this knowledge? Their parents? It’s probably accurate to say there’s a general lack of knowledge about civics and/or participation in our system of government that they can pass on to their children.

Is this important? What does this mean for the future of our communities, and for our system of local, state and federal government, and for public policy making? If the trend continues, i.e., less educational opportunities to teach/learn civics and government, with a growing population (both majority and minority) that lacks a foundation or experience in either of these, then we can expect a continuing polarization between government officials and their constituents. But it is even more than simply a gap.

For example, where the number of ethnic minorities generally are not represented in their local and state governments (due in part to a lack of exposure to this sector, and hence maybe a lack of understanding about or a disinterest in government careers or running for an elective office), then we may see public policy decisions weighted more toward the majority that is currently represented in these governing bodies.

“What’s new,” you ask? What’s new is while today the majority that makes up the governing bodies of these public institutions is still representative as the majority population. But as this majority becomes the minority in society, they may still continue to dominate positions in government institutions. Then we might see patterns where these ethnic majority policy makers favor their ethnic minority population when making decisions that affect the whole.

As a graduate student in 2006, Michiko Ueda, in her essays on political representation, provided some insight into this scenario. Ms. Ueda found her data “reveals that the presence of racial minorities in the (state) legislature seemed to have positively affected minorities as a whole, not just those residing in districts represented by African Americans.” This is sort of the reverse scenario that I mention, yet applies to the same sort of decision making process.

Do we know for a fact that our young people have lost or are losing their foundation of knowledge about civics and democracy? To explore whether there is a trend developing toward civic/democracy ignorance among students, we could conduct a study among tenured college professors who teach courses in political science, public administration, civics etc. We could ask them for their observations whether incoming freshmen, for example, display a lack of understanding or exposure to the basic concepts and principals of these topics.

Are we entering a new period about how future generations’ understanding, grasp and response to our historical democratic processes will have a profound effect on our system of governance? How will future societies respond to the concept of civic responsibility if they have not been exposed to its basic concepts? Here’s an even bigger question: Is our historic and traditional concept of civics and democracy more suited to a nation containing a mostly homogeneous society where it can more easily be interpreted and applied, or does it transcend it and can accommodate a wider diversity among its members?

Teaching civics and how government and democracy works is important and should be a formalized part of our elementary and high school curriculum, and I am making an appeal to our state and local school systems to reinvigorate and reintroduce the study of civics and government in our classrooms.

What do you think? Am I looking at this like “Chicken Little?” Can you see such a scenario or something similar starting to develop?

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