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I have for years worked as a writer -- I was the first editor of the issues books used in the National Issues Forums -- and as a professor in an interdisciplinary graduate program at Fielding Graduate University. I have had a longstanding interest in civic education. Over the years, I have become increasingly concerned about the loss of what used to be called civics in education at all levels. Educators – whether at the high school level, on college campuses, or in graduate programs like the one in which I teach -- bear a particular responsibility for the fact that so many young Americans have checked out of public life. At a time when most Americans think that the nation is headed in the wrong direction, a majority of Americans are convinced that they can't make a difference, and that there's no place for them in politics.
What used to be called “civics” -- the study of democratic principles and practices -- has been neglected in schools at all levels, particularly in higher education. Political scientists are mainly responsible for a course called American Government, which focuses on the formal institutions of government, especially at the federal level: Congress, the Courts, and the Executive branch. The sense of democracy conveyed by such courses is that it is something they do – namely, elected officials, and experts who run the show on our behalf. The citizen’s role, from this perspective, is understood quite narrowly in terms of what has been called ballot box democracy: When you vote, you have your accountability moment. Then you sit back until the next election rolls around.
David Mathews' new book, The Ecology of Democracy, is an important and clearly written reminder of what we as educators have overlooked: a citizen-centered understanding of democratic life. The challenge for us as educators is to re-examine democracy, to ask what it should mean, what it requires of us, and what it would take to make it work better.
Along with several of my faculty colleagues, I recently offered a seminar entitled “Democracy’s Dilemmas” in which students read, among other titles, David Mathews’ book. Judging by my students’ comments, this book helped them re-frame their understanding of politics and it opened up new perspectives about what can – and should – be done to make democracy work better.
I’d be interested in using this forum as an occasion for us to discuss what we are doing and learning in our efforts to create a 21st century civics.