About one month ago, I took a weekend trip to Washington D.C. As I sat in the National Archives waiting my turn to view original copies of the Declaration of Independence, U.S. Constitution, and Bill of Rights, I overhead a gray-haired father talking to his kids about what the documents were all about. Meanwhile, next to him, a group of teenagers on a school field trip were having a similar discussion. The two conversations converged and become one on this point: the preamble of the Constitution as performed by Schoolhouse Rock. I listened as together the gray-haired father and the teenage students recited in sing-song the lyrics of the old educational tune.
The moment was striking to me because it illustrated two points. First, it showed the enduring power of Schoolhouse Rock and the power of popular media to deliver messages that not only make us care, but also stick with us for a long time (sound familiar?). Second, it hinted that for all the things that have changed in the world of government over the years, how we teach people about government hasn’t really changed all that much.
I bring up this story as a springboard to explore that second point: how people learn about government. Those of us who work in government may not feel directly impacted by the world of civics teachers and government text books, but I’d argue they play an important, under appreciated role in our successes and challenges, big and small. Furthermore, I think the American civics course is overdue for an overhaul.
What Have We Learned?
Returning to those strangers at the National Archives, I too will admit: I had my Schoolhouse Rock experience. Throughout elementary, middle, and high school, I learned about pilgrims and presidents, I learned about the three branches of government, and, of course, I learned how a bill becomes a law. I’ll tell you what I didn’t learn about: I didn’t learn about the Minnesota Department of Administration. I didn’t learn much about the three levels of government — local, state, and federal — and how they interact. I didn’t learn about the government entities in my own community, whether that be city council, school boards, or the many others I know about today.
Perhaps most telling is this: as a teenager trying to chart the course of my future, I learned how to follow presidential campaigns with fervor (and even volunteer for them before I was of voting age), but I didn’t learn how to interface with the government entities that served me and my community in any substantial way.
Now, your mileage may vary; maybe your experience was different from mine. But from my perspective this experience is indicative of a larger phenomenon: We too often cede important conversations about our government — from the classroom to the newsroom — to the world of politics. To many people, the two may seem interchangeable, but those of us who work in government know the distinction is incredibly important.
I believe letting this dynamic persist contributes to further myopia and misunderstanding about government and it enables continuing political dysfunction, gridlock, and bickering.
Time to Teach
As government professionals – and government communicators in particular – we can play an important role in changing this dynamic and taking back the conversation. As Congressional and Presidential politics continue to devolve into a circus show and public attitudes about government continue to sink, we know of countless examples where government is improving, evolving, solving problems, and striving to make a positive impact.
We need to tell those stories. We need to get people engaged and involved in the good of government, rather than letting partisan rancor take our stage away. From a communications and cultural perspective, that won’t be an easy thing to do. But I think starting with the civics classroom and our government coursework can pave the way.
Let’s teach students not only about who discusses and makes laws, but also about who executes and owns them. Let’s teach them about the challenges that exist in that space. And most importantly, let’s teach students about why it matters to their day-to-day life and how they can (and should) get involved.
As my government career continues to evolve, this is an area where I hope to make a difference and will encourage my peers to join me.
As government professionals, we can build stronger relationships with students and teachers. As policy experts, we can explore how curriculum can be updated to better balance the worlds of governance and politics. And as citizens, we can remember to go beyond the broad strokes of Schoolhouse Rock and newspaper headlines when talking to our friends and family about government.
And should you be a visitor to Washington D.C., don’t forget to take even passing notice of some of the under appreciated, lesser known landmarks during your trip. Because 18F and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau are as significant monuments to our 21st century government as the ol’ Constitution is.