Don Wycliff

Understanding civics

Sunday, June 25, 2017

I recently attended an event where a woman who looked to be about 60 years old stood up and admitted that, until a few months ago, she had known almost nothing about civics: how laws get made; how legislatures are structured and legislators are chosen; how "we, the people" govern ourselves.

I wish I could say her confession surprised me, but it didn’t. As a teacher of journalism at a well-regarded university for six years, ending in 2014, I was routinely taken aback by what my students did not know about how our government and our democratic political systems work. For a would-be journalist, such ignorance is a grave handicap.

The past several years of our politics have provided abundant evidence of this civic ignorance. A classic example: The sign held up at a rally during the debate over the proposed Affordable Care Act telling Congress and the president to "Keep the government out of my Medicare."

Another example: Earlier this month, groups of Americans in many cities around the country participated in protests against the adoption of "Sharia law" — as if such a thing could be accomplished surreptitiously and in clear violation of the First Amendment.

We now have a president who thought — and may still think — that the Constitution of the United States has 12 articles; who seems ignorant of the role and status of the courts; who believes libel law is the province of the federal government and who seems to confuse the presidency with absolute monarchy.

Small wonder our politics are so bitter. A heck of a lot of us don’t even understand what we are contending over. And nothing inspires fear and anger so readily as ignorance.

Especially for an old-timer, the temptation is to say that things were better in the old days. They may have been, but there’s no way to prove it, and a great deal of the civic ignorance displayed in recent years has been displayed by people 65 and older, who presumably were educated during those good old days.

What seems clear is that the main trends in education over the past two decades have not favored civic education but have militated against it. The focus on standardized testing and "basic skills" resulted in more and more emphasis on reading and mathematics and less on things like art and music and, yes, civic learning.

Additionally, the media have ceased to be the teachers of civics they once were. My personal understanding of how Congress legislates grew out of watching a sober Roger Mudd report from Capitol Hill for CBS on the adoption of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Sen. Sam Ervin’s Watergate hearings were a virtual classroom lesson on the congressional oversight process. And the Cronkite-Smith-Huntley-Brinkley coverage of the Republican and Democratic national conventions put on display the "Everyman" and "Everywoman" who, coming from cities and towns and hamlets all over the nation, actually helped select our highest national leaders.

All that is gone in our new, fragmented, digital-media era. We get less nuts-and-bolts coverage of how government works (or doesn’t) and more in-studio bickering among teams of "analysts," "correspondents," "specialists" and assorted other talking heads. More heat than light.

There are some auspicious signs. Two years ago the state of Illinois, after a campaign led by the Robert R. McCormick Foundation (where I am a director), adopted a law requiring every high school student to complete a one-semester course in civics in order to graduate.

On a broader level, former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor has created an organization, iCivics, to press for a revival of civic education in schools nationwide. Hers is just one of a several similar efforts nationwide.

Every American who cares about the future of our nation ought to hope that these efforts succeed. There can be no functioning, effective democracy with a population that does not understand how the system is supposed to work.

Wycliff formerly was editorial page editor of the Chicago Tribune and a member of the New York Times editorial board.


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