Executive orders are easy; forging legislation is hard. Executive orders are flimsy and can be dismantled by the next administration. Crafting policy takes statesmanship and compromise. Policy lasts. It takes political leadership, along with an educated and motivated populace, to turn policies into laws. There are numerous examples of successful bi-partisan legislation at the local and national level, where business, social, and economic interests were balanced with the needs of the citizens: Public Health programs, the GI Bill, the Interstate Highway system, FDIC, Clean Air and Water programs, workplace safety, consumer protections, etc. , and – along with the broad economic progress resulting from the engine of free enterprise. Through free enterprise, we have reduced extreme poverty globally 80%, but over the last 50 years, the US poverty rate has not changed. The reality is that we are – and should not be – either pure socialist or capitalist; we choose a blend of both based on the current need and context.
As informed citizens, we are more effective in supporting leaders who champion balanced and effective policy. The courses, workshops, and monthly issues forum we offer tackle the policy issues that governments and communities face every day. Let’s address two faulty beliefs and values confounding the political debate: the oversimplification of problems and the fallacy that neglect is good (or at least acceptable) in that it toughens us up and builds character.
The issues facing us today are not simple: the easy problems get solved lower down the ladder. The better we can think about and work with our complex problems, the better the solutions we will develop. Independent and critical thinking is a developmental journey. We start as simple children: everything is either mean or nice, good or bad, happy or sad. This dualistic thinking is not a very good starting point for forging life’s necessary compromises. This worldview produces teasing and taunting, personal attacks and bullying; not reasoned responses. The next stage is multiplicity, the idea that we’re all entitled to our opinions and that each opinion holds equal value. This is an appealing safe haven in a worldview that produces a measure of self-respect, but only in the isolation of one’s thoughts and one’s tribe. But what happens when the context requires compromise or a comprehensive solution? Now we’re in the realm of necessary conflict; the realm of policy and governance (and, by the way, of managing, parenting, and teaching). We grow to develop the capacity of balancing competing interests; where the rule of law is preferable to the use of force. This is work that moves to the murky space of relativism. Some ideas are better than others – given certain requirements and a specific context.
Viewed in this context, criticisms of “elites,” appeals to fear, and childish personal attacks are revealed merely as undeveloped thinking. Our education system, the press, our public figures, and our social media cater to this worldview by using simplistic educational strategies, emotionally triggering news, personal attacks, appeals to fear, and free-for-all unmoderated and unguided debates. We continue to lower the bar on our culture; it’s time for citizens to raise the bar on our institutions. The answer is in education: help people develop their appreciation for intellectual development by pushing back on simplification and isolating strategies. We can do better. We promote interactivity as a necessary requirement in education, the development of soft skills and independent thinking, and moderated social media and news information flows.
Our public debate is hampered by citizens and leaders who are stuck in dualistic and multiplistic models of thinking. To compound this, we have political rhetoric: emotional appeals, personal attacks, and simple sound bites which reinforce our entrenched positions. To be an effective citizen, we are each challenged to develop our capabilities and to learn to work with the cognitive dissonance of competing, viable alternatives. We’re responsible for riding out our emotional triggers, listening to diverse viewpoints, and responding with our hearts and our minds.
As long as people will accept crap, it will be financially profitable to dispense it. – Dick Cavett
Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are our inalienable rights, but a fool hopes that we will solve all of our problems and find eternal peace in our lifetimes. It’s a pursuit; the journey. Pain and suffering are part of life, and will always serve to toughen and to produce wisdom in those that chose growth over stagnation. The rationale that inflicting pain or that withholding relief “builds character” is a misguided rationalization. There is a significant body of research demonstrating this. Here are a few resources on adverse childhood experiences, the impact of early adversity of development. Crying it out to develop independence is a failed 19th-century parenting style along the tragic lines of eugenics.
The aphorism “That which does not kill us, makes us stronger” reflects an outdated and damaging leadership style. Is this left-wing snowflake fluff? An alternative conclusion – based in science – is that those who intentionally ‘toughen up’ their kids, their spouses, their employees, their citizens, are acting immorally based on faulty beliefs. If this is you, take a hard look in the mirror. The bottom line is that a healthy population is a productive population and produces a healthy and productive society and economy. If relieving pain and suffering while promoting the dignity of meaningful work is within our capability, we should do so.
Wicked Policy Problems
Competing dynamics and limited capacity confound numerous policy issues. Here are a few to ponder: increasing economic opportunity, improving health care, and addressing climate change. Others await the intrepid facilitator: the rural/urban split, globalism vs. nationalism. If you are a subject matter expert moved to build a program or moderate a forum on these topics, let’s roll up our sleeves, sharpen our quills, and get to work.
Increasing Economic Opportunity
Economic security is the bottom-line issue. People fall into crime without a means of feeding themselves, and societies fall when citizens lose faith in the current system to provide achievable economic opportunities. Economic security and opportunity are the first issues. We take an in-depth look at the current factors impacting opportunity: the dynamics of competitive pressures on the marketplace, citizen’s ability to develop financial independence, business consolidation and antitrust, the impacts of globalization and automation. We then look at different proposals and their merits to establish consensus on next steps and policy ideas.
Improving the Health Care Model
A healthy population is a productive population. The US is the only first world country without universal health coverage and has the most expensive health care in the world. From a citizen-consumers perspective, this is a terrible value. Don’t you think if the consumer really had a voice, this would stand? It’s in our interests to assure everyone has access to reasonable health care. It seems the primary beneficiaries of our model are Health Care R&D and insurance companies. We are funding our competitive advantage with our lives; we are collateral damage. We take a look at alternative health care models, survey approaches from other countries, then knock around competing ideas to come up with next steps and policy recommendations
Addressing Climate Change
The most significant wicked problem is climate change and the prospects of falling behind developing adaptations, new technologies, and protocols that follow from accepting these changes. The impact of climate change is far-reaching on energy and solar innovations, agriculture and fishing, transportation/electric vehicles, insurance and healthcare. If you think turmoil is a good economic strategy – if you profit from chaos – there is no better game. We know the issues and are working on solutions, but the problem is technical, it is the FUD factor: the fear, uncertainty, and doubt deliberately perpetrated on our children. My children. We have taken a huge gamble bowing out of the Paris accord. There is a lot to lose in rejecting the 97% consensus of global scientists for what seem only to be short term gains. We risk falling far behind in developing solutions the world will need. Are we short-sighted? What is the long-term strategy in defunding advances to adapt to a more volatile climate? The deniers have no end game. The wicked problem here is the needed immediacy, confounded by noise, in the face of a slow creeping disaster. We explore the truthiness of the competing claims, strategies to reach consensus, overcome roadblocks, and move constructively forward to a healthier environment.
The call to action is admirable: pay attention, take charge, and get involved. But portraying all government as lousy government is irresponsible and sets up an intractable position. The better way to look at this is not good government vs. bad government, but by assessing the effectiveness of government. Effectiveness is a conversation; good vs. bad kills diplomacy and takes us back to the drawing board of bridging divides. We should be discussing ways to create opportunities while improving wellbeing, not fighting over gerrymandered districts and the electoral college.
Thomas Paine, in Common Sense, defines government as a necessary evil: an evil that must be allowed for a greater good to result. Governments are the recognition of our human tendencies to be corrupted by power: the same recognition behind the separation of powers; and Democracy is the worst form of government, except all others.
Thomas Friedman, in his book, Thank You For Being Late, makes a case for “applied hope.” In a healthy conversation, there is good faith, an exchange of ideas, and compromise. The end of all wars is either diplomatic or autocratic; and since we strive to sustain a government of, by, and for the people, we will vote for diplomatic.
We have more common ground than we think, and we have a demonstrable track record of working together, across our divides, to move our way forward to a more perfect democracy. The easy problems get solved, the tough ones take work. If we are emotionally triggered, or morally intransigent, we can’t show up to do the job. Those that marginalize us – that build up and then push our triggers – demean us. Cast off the shysters, propagandists, and gossip mongers and show up to do the work of community building.
We, the voters, established the government and empowered our institutions to act on our behalf. Institutions are empowered authorized with decision-making authority; it is the Institution’s responsibility to adapt: they hold the locus of control. But institutions can’t do this alone. We are the government: we decide how the government works, so it’s up to us to articulate the requirements and protocols. This is the gap we need to address: the ever-evolving need to synchronize citizen needs and institutional performance.
When asked why the government doesn’t innovate, Michael Bloomberg argues that we have not given the government the authority:
“The public,” Bloomberg says, “insists, and arguably has a right to insist, that it knows where its money’s going. [They] have a very high expectation of results…. That is not the way innovation works. Innovation–the essence of innovation–is you don’t know what you’re going to build, what it’s going to be called, how much it’s going to cost. You cannot use public monies unless you can answer virtually every one of those questions, which is why government tends not to innovate. The public wants that accountability in advance, that justification in advance. But that’s not going to work for certain things. What’s Next for Michael Bloomberg.
Power in a democracy rests with the people. When we allow ourselves to be marginalized, to become emotionally compromised, we give up that power. Anyone (hucksters, con-men, autocrats) or any organization (propaganda machines, conspiracy theorists, gossip rags) that attempt to usurp our power is working against us. It is our responsibility to assert our authority, ignore the trolls, educate the uninformed, and work constructively to express the public will.
We live in an age of immediacy; we’re all working long and hard, so we default to trusting the system to work it out. In the 18th Century, only landed white males, enabled by social structures (patriarchy, slavery, etc.), had time and energy for the “higher pursuits” of education and civic service. The Leather Apron club, or Junto Benjamin Franklin’s progenitor of many service clubs, spawned lending libraries, fire departments, and the volunteer militia. In today’s world, where everyone is an earner, leisure time is at a premium and typically reserved for recreation and recovery. As a result, civic participation as a normal way of life is fading – replaced by organizational affiliations and donations to the cause. Service clubs and organizations are dying off, and attendance at religious services is declining. This is not from a growing spiritual bankruptcy but is a failure of leadership along with parishioner availability and priority. This broader experience, community connectedness, and rewards of service are outsourced while we attend to GDP.
Arthur Brooks, in The Conservative Heart, argues that there are four pillars to a happy life: faith, family, community, and meaningful work. Service is a localized, community activity, the spawning ground of ideas and solutions, and a key to lifelong happiness. We all need to make time to be active citizens, staying informed and refining our positions in the company of a trusted community.
All Politics is local. The architecture of change moves from individual to community, to local, state and then national. There are a few promising projects which local leaders should consider.
The Participatory Budgeting project works with government organizations and citizens to decide together how to spend public money.
Community Rights works with communities to pass locally enforceable laws protecting people and nature from destructive corporate practices.
Warm Cookies of the Revolution, led by Evan Weissman, has been running the world’s first civic Health Club in Denver running delightful programs since 2012.
Doing the Work
Why is our public dialogue perceived to be rancorous and polarized? This perception is based on a limited range of experience. With only news media and insubstantial social media, we have no forum for more profound understanding to develop. We have a distinct lack of public venues and healthy conversations: a community participation gap. Remember that the anger we perceive is a secondary emotion: the primary emotions underlying anger are usually fear, pain, and shame. Community groups mitigate those feelings by providing forums to air and explore our ideas feelings before they deepen and take hold. There is only one way to get through these: spend the time and do the work.
There is a growing field of specialists in the broader field of Dialogue and Deliberation focusing broadly on the skills of facilitation and mediation. These specialists are working with government agencies and community groups to implement processes and structures to enable healthy, constructive dialogue. The National Coalition for Dialog and Deliberation (NCDD) is a membership network of over 700 individuals and organizations helping communities of all sorts have more productive conversations on what matters most.
The Public Square Academy, a member of the NCDD network, is developing to provide an alternative to declining service clubs and aggregate innovative community-building programs under one brand. We are interested in working with subject matter experts to build education programs and communities around the following topics:
Economic and Opportunity Development
Dialogue and Deliberation
Citizen Oversight (Leadership and Analytics)
Community Empowerment and Development
Being an effective citizen takes more than eternal vigilance; it takes a personal commitment to engagement and support. Given economic freedom of choice, we all want to live in a peaceful, beautiful place, with abundance and access to a vibrant community. We would all want time to raise our families, participate in school outings, support our parents, grandchildren, and grandparents, and to be civically engaged. Make time for community and become civically engaged.
This article is part three of a six-part series that surveys topic areas of civic and consumer education. We assess the needs and opportunities for adult civic and consumer education, then present a few ideas for individuals looking to enhance their knowledge. If you are interested in participating in a program with The Public Square Academy, you can view our courses here. If you are a subject matter expert in a relevant area and interested in designing a program, please contact us to discuss program development opportunities.
With the proliferation of products and services and the magnificent rise in the global standard of living, it is easy to ‘give a pass’ to the organizations that are charging ahead, applying new technologies to add tremendous value. March 15th is World Consumer Rights Day, a good day to reflect on the importance of empowered consumers. As with our political checks and balances, the consumer provides checks and balances to corporations. Reflect for a moment on a recent purchase decision: were you able to clearly understand whether the product or services met your needs prior to purchase? Were you confident that you and your family were safe from any potential harm? Were you confident that if you had a problem, you could easily contact someone and have your problem addressed?
As a teacher, I would ask parents what else they wanted their kids to know before they got pushed out of their nest. Invariably, parents asked for financial, legal, and health education: real-life skills. But schools focus on academics, not life skills. Other than a few weeks of risk-avoidance health classes, our schools barely address real-world topics: we are all pushed out into adulthood with our wits, a copy of Lord of the Flies, and the confidence of invincible teenagers.
Our lives and responsibilities as consumers are getting more complicated as products and services differentiate and refine. Amidst a sea of content, consumer access to useful company information and decision-makers is increasingly complicated. Product information is replaced with free trials, and pricing is buried in web sites or not disclosed until after registration. Pricing often fluctuates by time and day, making it more difficult to make a purchase decision in a reasonable amount of time. Many companies do not publish corporate phone numbers or addresses, and service departments are being automated. Terms and conditions are written in incomprehensible legalese and arbitration clauses block consumers from legal action. Organizations are shifting laws to their advantage drowning out the voice and power of the consumer. Without this information and access, consumer decision-making is hobbled, and their wellbeing is diminished.
At the same time organizations are erecting barriers to customer education and choice while government protections are being weakened or eliminated. In a free market, buyers and sellers form a symbiotic relationship where prices rise and fill to meet demand as moderated by supply. If the buyer’s power is weakened, the free market gets tipped out of balance.
Business consolidation is accelerating, with many sectors now uncompetitive oligopolies. Start-ups are now the minor leagues where venture-capitalists to identify unicorns or groomed for buy-outs by sector-dominating companies. Meanwhile, the average worker is working harder and longer, must save for retirement in increasingly uncertain job markets, and absorb an ever-increasing share of health care costs. All this with wages that have been flat for fifty years in uncertain job markets where employment is increasingly project-based: 35% of all workers are now in the gig economy as independent contractors with no employer health care or retirement plans. Consumers are squeezed, discretionary income has been harvested, leaving longer-term needs unfunded.
These threats to consumer empowerment are not likely to be addressed through our political processes. Our parties are gridlocked, our political debate is hardened. Public sentiment is ignored too often when economic growth and opportunity is at stake. It now takes lobbying muscle and the power of the purse to influence legislation. If we value free markets and free enterprise wouldn’t a better-educated more empowered consumer provide healthier pressure for the improvements of products and services?
Ok. that was a rhetorical question. So, why are these subjects not taught in school, and where should this education come from? Aside from the typical cynical reasons, they are likely not taught in school because students are not ready. Can a fourteen-year-old really understand the ins and outs of health care and insurance? If they don’t have their own money and savings goals, what good is an investment strategy? The truth is, real-life skills training is best delivered when real life is the learning context.
An empowered consumer shares many characteristics with an effective citizen: they know their strengths and needs, they can hold their integrity in stressful situations and make clear decisions under pressure. They know their rights to free choice, to be heard, informed, and educated, to receive service, and to be safe. An empowered consumer is a smart shopper, knows what they want, and can wait until they get it. They can do the math and know that quality is usually cheaper in the long run. They’ve been around the block. They know how sales works, can resist sales pressures, can ask intelligent questions, and have the support of other consumers. An informed and empowered consumer will save tens of thousands of dollars over just one lifetime! So, what’s a good consumer empowerment class worth to you? $1,000? $2,000? $5,000? Have we got a deal for you!
The Public Square Academy is home to a library of civic and consumer education programs, all designed and led by subject matter experts and qualified facilitators. Here are a few course offerings created to help you become a more informed and empowered consumer.
We have the most expensive health care system in the world. It’s a fine system if you are an R&D firm needing lots of revenue to keep ahead of the competition, but not so good if you are young, unemployed, or a contingent worker. The conventional debate is between a single payer system and a free market system. Wouldn’t a free market system be driven by customer choice? Well, what if health-care were customer-focused? Wouldn’t you be able to research and select health care providers and procedures based on price and quality information? Try calling around for a quote, search for performance rankings of oncologists, call three internists and ask for an interview before you make a hiring decision. Taking a class in health care is not going to solve that problem, but educated voters just might. Let us help you beef up your Health Chops!
We are most irrational when it comes to love and money. As we are not a dating service, we’ll focus on the do-re-me. Above and beyond becoming an empowered consumer, developing financial literacy forms a solid foundation for a healthy and happy life. We will explore the traditional financial literacy topics such as budgeting, savings, and credit, and go beyond to develop participant financial perspectives. How the game of commerce is played. What is financial security and why would I want it? Understanding your values: relationships, experiences, and material things. How much is enough? Develop your own definition of wealth and a plan to achieve wealth? Do you want to retire? If so, under what terms. Think of us as the Uncle you wish you had. Join the Financial Literacy program.
Sir Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web in 1989. We are just at the very beginning of the information age. Ahead of us lies the potential of universal education (hey, that’s our game!), greater global equity and prosperity, and through constructive communication, resolutions to problems that have long plagued us. Berner-Lee, in his recent Wired article on the 30-year anniversary of the Web, frames up three challenges we must address three sources of dysfunction affecting today’s web:
Deliberate, malicious intent, such as state-sponsored hacking and attacks, criminal behavior, and online harassment.
System design that creates perverse incentives where user value is sacrificed, such as ad-based revenue models that commercially reward clickbait and the viral spread of misinformation.
Unintended negative consequences of benevolent design, such as the outraged and polarized tone and quality of online discourse.
In developing your tech chops, your skills, and knowledge, you will develop a foundation of technical literacy while digging into these questions.
This is part two of a six-part series that surveys topic areas of civic and consumer education. We assess the needs and opportunities for adult civic and consumer education, then present a few ideas for individuals looking to enhance their knowledge. If you are interested in participating in a program with The Public Square Academy, you can view our courses here. If you are a subject matter expert in a relevant area and interested in designing a program, please contact us to discuss program development opportunities.
Let’s take it as a given that a Democracy requires a conscious and intentional effort to keep it running at it’s best possible state. We are in an era where – for better and for worse – passions are inflamed and positions are hardened. In the essay “Revitalizing Civic Education,” we make the case for a fresh approach to educating today’s citizens about their civic responsibilities and the threats our democracy faces. But what exactly is effective citizenship? What does it mean to carry out your civic duty? Here we explore the characteristics of an effective citizen and opportunities for creating programs that aim to educate and empower today’s citizens. Please let us know your thoughts.
An effective citizen:
Holds and defends democratic values, is a champion of human rights
Balances the needs of the individual with the needs of society
Understands and protects the values of the society’s founding documents (in the US- the Constitution)
Uses protects and defends a free press
Makes it a practice to be an informed citizen
Knows their positions on current issues and can evaluate candidates and ballot propositions
Protects the integrity of elections
Regularly works to improve their personal capabilities
Is emotionally intelligent, maintaining their integrity under social pressures
Practices independent thinking and decision-making and is cognizant of their limitations: personal, cultural, the impact of biases and fallacies
Is a leader among a society of leaders
If you are an individual who believes in upholding and defending our democracy, where do you turn to develop your skills as an effective citizen?? In our ever-changing world, and particularly at this point in history, it is critical that citizens of good faith commit to being civic lifelong learners. It means that you commit a few hours each week away from socializing, games and movies, and instead in learning communities developing yourselves and your communities in the company of trusted learning groups. PSA provides the space you need to participate in transformational learning experiences, with others that you’ll build trusted relationships with throughout the experience. Our model provides the structure to facilitate engaging experiences that put you on a path to effective citizenship.
This is the gap we address: continuing adult civic and consumer education delivered in a useful and enjoyable model. We define civic and consumer education broadly, including the development of citizenship- skills, consumer empowerment, community engagement, the realms of policy and government, healthy practices in the workplace and schools, and in personal and family wellbeing. The larger goal is a more healthy society.
What will programs look like that address these goals we mentioned before? What can you do to become a more effective citizen? Here are a few to consider. If you are interested in participating in the program, please join the waitlist on the program page. If you would like to develop or teach these or other programs, then please sign up for the Program Design Class. As always, feel free to contact us directly.
An effective citizen masters Media Literacy:
Makes it a practice to be an informed citizen
Uses protects and defends a free press
Do you really think that the media are the enemies of the people? Let’s take a reality check here. The Press is known as the 4th Estate: the unofficial fourth branch of government. The press, on our behalf and with the support of our subscription investment, is our watchdog of institutions and other organizations and individuals in society. You may not like what you see, but to cast out the entire profession is a dangerous overreaction. Isn’t it a better choice to work with what you have and make it better? Will we succumb to childish name calling an unsubstantiated allegations? When someone says “trust me” without doing the work to earn your trust, that’s when your sales scam alerts should start ringing. The journalist’s job is to come up with the “best obtainable version of the truth.”
If the media are put out of business, then how shall we stay informed? Which sources provide the most reliable information? How shall we spend our limited time consuming and digesting current events? Might we suggest a light yet informative program called Media Meal Planning? Just as when we plan a weekly groceries list, if we spend a little time up front planning out a menu, shop for quality ingredients, prepare our meals with care, we will be healthier, happier people. Why not spend a little time planning your media diet? Come study what makes for a good editorial policy, learn to make better choices in how you spend your time and money. Could anyone really defend the argument that the National Enquirer is a better publication then the big national papers or even any decent local newspaper? A serious and effective citizen does not eat ice cream for breakfast, drink beer for lunch, or waste their time on poor quality information drivel. Eat well. Consume quality information. You are what you eat.
An effective citizen knows their values and positions, and applies those values to evaluate candidates and ballot propositions
Knows their values and positions on current issues
Can assess and evaluate candidates and ballot propositions based on values
We are the managers of our democracy, but how informed are we about our own positions and the propositions and candidates we are asked to vote for? How many of us are clear about our own values, not just the ones passed on by our families or the ones held by our political party? We have unprecedented access to information. We are flooded with marketing messages, news, media, pop culture, the demands of an always-on 7×24 workplace. But do we have the right information to connect our values to our voting decisions?
But when it’s “go” time: time to evaluate candidates and propositions and place our votes, how do we cast votes that align with our values? We all share common democratic values: personal freedom, the rule of law, freedoms of speech, belief, and the press. The real differences between us and our parties are in how we prioritize these values. We believe each of us owes it to ourselves and our society to step back and take a look at what we really believe and the direction we want our societies to grow. Join us for a deep look and Craft Your Personal Platform.
An effective citizen is a lifelong learner, regularly seeking personal growth:
Regularly works to improve their personal capabilities
Fosters independent thinking and decision-making
Is cognizant of their limitation: personal, cultural, the impact of biases and fallacies
As so many of us are regularly stressed and stretched too thin, it is tempting to retreat, to seek shelter from the storms of our lives. The longer this continues, many of us make it our life’s goal to simplify, declutter, retreat to the older simpler time, to retire as quickly as we can. We bounce from coffee in the morning to wine and beer at night; the downside of pervasive competition unchecked by collective demand for wellbeing. In this environment of always on and always behind, it is difficult to make time for personal development and wellbeing. But if we don’t, we’ll only have ourselves to blame.
Medical science and Gerontology research teach us to keep active as long as we can. Doctors push patients to become ambulatory as quickly as possible following surgery, and seniors are guided to take up new challenges such as a new language. Why? This is what keeps us vibrant and engaged. We know from our own experience that when we exercise, eat right, and get good sleep, we feel and perform better. This is also true for our intellectual, emotional, and civic lives. If we don’t attend to personal growth, if we don’t clear out resentments and ‘stories,’ we become intellectually and emotionally marginalized.
Life is a use-it-or-lose-it proposition
We have a ‘work-hard play-hard’ ethic in our culture that leaves no time for learning. About a quarter of adults have not read a book in the last year. There is no magic pill to staying current and crisp. It’s like going to the gym: it’s about time in and reps completed. Wouldn’t it be nice to build capacity building exercises into your daily routine? Wouldn’t it be better to do it with a group where you cheer each other on? Join our Lifelong Learning program to conduct an assessment of your capabilities, conduct a reality check of your limitations, and set a plan to keep you growing and crisp.
This is part one of a six-part series that surveys topic areas of civic and consumer education. We assess the needs and opportunities, then present a few program ideas. Some of these programs are ready, some need to be built. If you are interested as a participant, please sign up on the waiting list. If you are a subject matter expert in a relevant are and interested in designing a program, please contact us to discuss program development.
Our current political polarization is highlighting the lack of civic education in our schools and in our communities. In fact, Fourteen students in a Rhode Island lawsuit say the state provided such a substandard civic education that it “violates their rights under the US Constitution.” In fact, the US is one of only a few countries to have not ratified “the UN’s decades-old treaty on children’s rights, which stipulates various educational protections” for children. Last year, the Center for Educational Equity at Columbia Teachers College was preparing a lawsuit to improve civic education at a national level.
If we define a healthy democracy as one in which the rule of law, separation of powers, and the freedom of press are sacrosanct, then we must acknowledge that we are in crisis. When the predominant measure of our success is our GDP, which includes negative contributors such as $300 Billion in treating stress, treating unnecessary diseases and poverty-related disabilities, how are we to move our society toward greater health? Where our problems are unaddressed with productive public debate and a gridlocked congress, then our culture is stagnant. Democracy does not die all at once, it is the result of a “gradual breakdown of mutual toleration and respect for political legitimacy of the opposition;” we are on the slippery slope of democratic backsliding.
A healthy democracy requires an educated populace committed to defending its basic principles when they weaken or come under attack. Recall the French Revolutionary slogan Vivre Libre ou Mourir (“Live Free or Die”) and “Eternal Vigilance is the Price of Liberty.” At some time in each of our lives, we must ask “what would we be willing to fight and die for?” Most of us would defend ourselves and our families, but how often do we face the question: would you be willing to fight and possibly die to defend democracy?
Democracy-building in Iraq and Afghanistan have not worked; the strategy of imposing democracy from the top down is highly questionable. Previously stable democracies are backsliding towards autocratic rule in Brazil, Hungary, and the Philippines. The failure of the democracy to take hold in the Arab spring teaches us that a deep commitment to democratic values and institutions is necessary. Citizens must commit themselves to be active in their emerging democracy, even in the face of eroding civility and often in fear of autocratic rulers for democracy to develop and truly thrive.
So, how do we ensure civics education for learners of all ages? How do we promote civics education that engages more citizens in healthy, constructive public participation? What are the barriers to achieving healthy public participation?
Economic Security and Stability
Beyond each citizen’s personal commitment to democratic values and institutions, what does it take to sustain a healthy democracy? Maslow teaches us that when we are insecure, our higher motivations and civilized behaviors are replaced with the stress of surviving each day. When we are continually in a state of personal crisis, social norms and institutions are questioned or abandoned and fear takes hold. As economic insecurity and instability affect more citizens, our democracy is threatened.
58% of Americans have less than $1,000 or no savings, and only 16% can muster $20,000 or more. Some spend without a plan for savings, but the majority don’t earn enough. Many Americans do not have stable enough work to feel comfortable embarking on a long-term savings plan.
Throughout our history, our elections reflect the current mood of the populace. When we are healthy, whole and able to successfully manage our lives, we seek a steady and predictable candidate. When we live in perpetual crisis, we are each prone to believe in the rhetoric of a demagogue: The downtrodden support a strong defender, the disenfranchised herald a heroic champion, the disempowered yearn for a spiritual leader. Declining economic stability and security leads to short term, selfish voting decisions. And it follows on from there: as go our citizens, so goes our society. Character is Destiny.
Empowerment and Access
According to FairVote, 60% of Americans vote in presidential elections, and 40% in midterm elections. Compared to its international counterparts, the U.S. ranks 26th out of 32 highly developed, democratic states. It ranks below Mexico (66%), Greece (62%), and the Scandinavian countries (70-82%).
· Timing of the election, including early voting and the order of your state’s primary election day,
· Race, gender, and socio-economic demographics indicate that empowered populations vote at a higher rate.
· Political disengagement – the result of fatigue, resignation, and a sense that one’s vote does not matter.
Voter suppression and gerrymandering reduce empowerment and access. Sidestepping arguments over political motivation and blame, is voter manipulation and suppression really easier than voter education? Shouldn’t we seek to empower and enable – to legitimately sway to our causes – not to restrict?
Some parties and candidates try to “lock in” their base by creating emotional triggers; they intentionally fan emotional responses for short term accolades. When we are emotionally marginalized or compromised, we abandon the tenets of reason, we either explode in anger or implode and withdraw, and are not available for constructive discourse. When we are emotionally compromised, we overlook the fallacies of obviously deceitful propositions such as all taxes are bad taxes or that corporations are inherently evil. If a reasoned discussion is how we conduct our discourse, it is unethical to lock in your base by inflaming passions and creating emotional triggers.
The influence of organizations and dark money further affects our elections and our voters. Dark Money, or anonymous donations, and the right for organizations to engage in political free speech leads to a complex debate about money in politics. Organizations, on the right and the left, have drowned out the voice of the individual voter, further marginalizing individuals. Corporate personhood, as extended through the Citizens United Supreme Court case is controversial: Does this ruling usurp the principle of one person-one vote. In what ways should corporations have constitutional rights if any? Does corporate personhood violate the 14th Amendment (Equal Protections Clause)?
Economic stability, opportunity, and fair enforcement of justice are necessary conditions. Necessary, but not sufficient.
Education and Civic Engagement
Civics education and participation is the cornerstone of civil society, for only an educated and committed populace will sustain a vibrant democracy. According to Richard Kahlenberg and Clifford Janey in their Century Foundation report and described in the Atlantic, “Civic Literacy levels are dismal.” Civics education in the US is primarily relegated to K-12 public schools, and typically as a required Poly Sci and Government course in Colleges/Universities’ general ed requirements.
Each state publishes or adopts educational standards in each subject defining which learning objectives are to be taught at what grade level. The Common Core standards, adopted by forty-two states, does not even have a civics component. Not surprisingly, analysis of the state of civics education points to declining capabilities of our high school graduates. The National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) showed a roughly 25% proficiency rate across grades 4, 8, and 12. In 2013 the NAEP discontinued measuring civics capabilities in 4th and 12th grades “in order to save money.” Schools can do better, but schools alone cannot develop an informed and active citizenry.
For the general citizen, maintaining a current civics education is up to the individual. this effort typically involves keeping up with current events, by volunteering, or through support and participation in cause-related groups and nonprofits. However, service clubs, such as Rotary, Kiwanis, Lions, etc. are experiencing a steep decline in membership (58% from 1975-2000 with continued decline across the board since). As our population ages and time demands on working families multiply, these declining membership trends will likely continue.
Our public forums are now media outlet comments pages and social media platforms which are engineered for stickiness: to sell advertising, not for productive dialog. If we are to contrive a system of civic participation, it must be engineered from the bottom up, not from a market share gaining mindset. And it needs to be championed by a broad and deep cast of citizens.
Requirements for A Contemporary Civic Education Program
So what would a revitalized civic education model look like? Here are a few suggested requirements, we encourage the reader to join this conversation.
Civics Education Should:
1. Ensure that our public education system provides the background knowledge and skills for effective citizenship.
2. Goes beyond K-12 to provide a continuous learning model throughout our lives.
3. Provide mechanisms for healthy and constructive dialog and decision-making.
4. Be cost accessible for all citizens; regardless of economic ability or demographic.
5. Provide flexible access and delivery to meet various scheduling and geographic needs.
6. Meet the ever-diversifying and changing needs of our population.
7. Reflect the continuous and evolving nature of information and current events.
8. Develop a commitment to civilized behavior – a good neighbor ethic – and a respect for and ability to address divergent views and complex problems and difficulties.
9. Foster critical thinking skills and an independent commitment to democratic values.
10. Provides a highly interactive program where participants can interact to explore and develop their perspectives on complex issues and challenges
11. Recognize that democratic commitment is an evolutionary process, susceptible to devolution if not nurtured.
12. Teach the lessons of history and their application to the challenges of today.
13. Develop the mettle of our character.
14. Sustains participants engagement to ensure continuous learning.
A healthy state consists of informed, rational, caring citizens who work collaboratively to establish structures that provide security, enable economic opportunities, while ensuring a healthy society, with “liberty and justice for all.” This does not mean that we all agree; it is through the friction of debate that we collectively rise up. The left wing emphasizes a healthier environment and growing civil rights, the right wing emphasizes economic growth and security. These are all common values expressed with the tension of differing priorities. Through constructive debate we advance and overcome. There are eternal conflicts between us which have no clear answers: competition for resources, balancing the individual freedoms versus attending to the common good, the centralization and decentralization of power. Making decisions on cost alone has consequences for our quality of life. An emotionally triggered or marginalized population is not in our best interest.
We – every citizen – need to be the adults in the room; though we may not be 100% successful, we are 100% responsible. The last sentence of our Declaration of Independence calls for the mutual commitment of our lives and resources to protect and build our democracy by participating in a invigorating educational programs.
“And for the support of thisDeclaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.”
Will you stand up for democracy? What are your thoughts? What requirements do you have for revitalizing adult civic education?