In the old days, the class was called "Civics," not "Government," and the students learned how a bill became a law (a discourse that bore almost no resemblance to the way it really happens), the definition of "log-rolling" (a term I have never heard uttered in nearly a quarter-century of Washington reporting), and the three branches of governing (leaving out two other important Washington power centers, the special interests and the press). No matter. Civics is on its way back.
In one of the great ironies of the capital and of the times, the pressure for a national effort on civics education is coming from a Republican administration that, in theory as well as in speeches to conservative groups, abhors all initiatives that increase centralized authority, especially in education, a part of American culture that even liberals acknowledge traditionally has been controlled by the states. Again, no matter. The president nearly included civics in his State of the Union message and now has an administration team looking into the subject.
In truth, civics education may be an idea whose time has come (again), and it may be a topic that, in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, is welcomed by liberals and conservatives, regardless of their views on the role of government in American life. National sentiment is up, but voting participation is down, at least by historical trends. Though the real test of whether Americans respond to a national emergency by increasing their voting turnout is still more than five months away, experts in political participation doubt there will be an uptick of statistical significance.
But the real emphasis of this surge in interest in civics education isn't really voting. It's responsibility. "It's clear that young people love America and that, at a visceral level, they have a sense of patriotism," says Michael Haselswerdt, a Canisius College political scientist who is beginning a study of the relationship between patriotism and political participation among youth. "But it's not clear that these kids know much about the country or how it works or how they can get involved, especially at a local level, to play a role in this society. It's more than voting. It's understand zoning and taxes and who makes decisions and how they can affect them."
Efforts to promote civics education are sprouting everywhere. State Sen. Richard T. Moore, D-Mass., conducted a session on the topic in Boston last week, hoping to fold civics education into new state education initiatives on history and other social sciences. This week, the Indianapolis campus of the University of Indiana and Purdue conducts a five-day conference on the topic, with delegates from the United States and Hungary, Estonia, Ukraine, Latvia, Lithuania and Indonesia places where democracy skills are in their infancy.
"The democratic process requires knowledgeable citizens who can read and write but also be active," says Moore, who also serves as president of the Massachusetts chapter of the American Society for Public Administration. "Without them, it doesn't work. Without them, only a select few play a role in government. Without them, the squeaky wheels will have power, but the ordinary citizens won't."
Civics education was one of the staples of American high school life between the 1920s and 1960s, with half of the nation's students taking such courses. But Richard Niemi, a University of Rochester political scientist who has studied trends in U.S. civics education, says that only about a tenth of American high school students enroll in such courses now. This drop in civics education coincides with a drop in civic participation, a trend Niemi believes may not be coincidental. "It used to be implied that everyone had large citizenship responsibilities and should be participating," he says. "Maybe we've gone overboard by trying not to preach. We're at a different extreme now. We have to get back to balance."
Everyone agrees that the nation would profit if younger people knew more about its political system. But finding agreement on how to teach civics is not going to be easy.
The New Civics the companion to the New Math of the 1960s is going to have to be critical but not cynical. But most of all, it is going to have to be education, not indoctrination.
And it is going to have to confront questions like these: Should students be taught to concentrate on candidates, not their party affiliations and thereby erode even further the party system? Should students be taught that special interests are an essential part of democratic life or an unavoidable distraction from it? Should students embrace the notion at the heart of the New Civics that citizens aren't born with the capacity to govern themselves, a notion that has been debated since the days of Socrates and Plato?
And one more: What would a civics student learn about our political system about the rights and responsibilities of the different levels of government, and about the independence of local school systems from watching this debate? This whole question is a lesson plan in itself.
David Shribman is a columnist for The Boston Globe.