One government failure and apathetic citizen at a time, civic illiteracy is eroding the Golden State. That’s the forecast for California, according to data recently collected on civic involvement in the democratic process.
Start with the recently published California Civic Health Index that revealed that the state’s population is threatened by languor. Apathy is deadly for civic activity from volunteerism to voting to community service. Nonprofits California Forward, the Center for Civic Education and Pepperdine University’s Davenport Institute for Public Engagement collaborated to gauge civic proficiency statewide.
The index reveals that only a quarter of citizens have participated in a non-electoral political event (be it a rally, protest, demonstration or public forum) and roughly the same fraction is partaking in volunteer work. Only 8 percent report working with neighbors to resolve a community problem, and only 9 percent attend town halls or similar meetings.
Then there is continued lack of electoral enthusiasm. In 2008, voter turnout in California ranked 42nd in the nation. This past November, even with the grass-roots tea party furor, turnout slipped even further, according to the Secretary of State’s Office.
The fact is that California is no longer instilling civic values, virtues or anything of the kind.
If this is to be a year of sound public policy that doesn’t create monstrous deficits or tolerate inefficient programs that do not truly work for the people, surely it must be a year of civic re-engagement.
It is time for California, our nation’s most active economic center, to mandate Civics 101, to create a yearlong civics course that students must complete to graduate from high school. Such a program would teach students about how their government ticks, immerse them in current events within the state and beyond, and help them engage in community activities.
Local activities could be as diverse as constructing organic greenhouses in San Diego to volunteering at a Red Cross chapter or VA hospital to calling public attention to community hardships.
This curriculum or tour de force in citizenship would have students review important documents in American life, from George Washington’s farewell address to the Supreme Court decision in Miranda v. Arizona. Daily reading of regional newspapers, as well as an international newspaper, would be required with engaging classroom discussions following such assignments.
In my work at Harvard, I’ve begun to create an interactive civics course for secondary school students that includes political debates, live forums and panel discussions as well as virtual community games and real-life engagements that reframe citizenship for the 21st century. Moreover, the rudiments of citizenship must be incorporated into early childhood education.
In an era in which the Internet dominates young people’s education and communication, be it via word processing, Facebook or e-mail, online-based civic activities that encourage citizenship have enormous potential to engender a more robust democracy in California. Online, via issue-based town halls, students can revive the ancient Greek assembly or Roman forum. Games can involve students taking charge of different branches of federal or state government, swapping from executive to legislative to judicial, and their respective responsibilities.
As state and national economic conditions remain precarious, e-simulations can teach young people the fundamentals of financial literacy, the consequences of their spending habits, and how to fulfill their educational and career objectives with balanced budgets. The online revolution may have arrived, but Civics 2.0 has not. Without these digital tools and a bedrock of civic values, any form of rule by intelligent citizens will crumble.
Seventy percent of Americans believe civics is not adequately emphasized in their children’s education, according to an end-of-year Zogby poll. As the Civic Health Index report concludes, students must develop civic knowledge that goes beyond test-taking and uncreative evaluation mechanisms.
Civic inattentiveness and disinterest are so dire that such a program might be California’s (and the nation’s) only solution. With youth gripped to a consumer culture centered on individual rather than collective interests, the nation is spiraling deeper into a vicious cycle.
Californians should revive the spirit of service that has defined the American experience, leading the 50 states as a beacon of civic literacy for the next decade.
Heffner, a junior at Harvard concentrating in history, is director of a civic education and journalism nonprofit, ScoopSeminar.org