Skills Versus Stuff: The Citizenship Vacuum

Just about everyone laments over the vast majority of high school and college graduates who know very little about American government. Students do not know such facts as the number of Senators in the U.S. Senate, and they have little understanding of the broader organization of federal, state and local governments. Many also whine over the apathy that leads to low voter turnout and the selfish behavior of citizens at all levels and ranges of education, social statuses and political parties.

Plenty of blame exists in and outside the educational community, but let’s just focus on the academy. As is true in mathematics and English, professors of history, political science and other social sciences are more interested in making mini-experts out of their students rather than functional, active citizens. The fractured college curriculum has wrecked the high school curriculum because courses in psychology, sociology and anthropology have become alternatives to courses in government, economics or civics.

The community service and “do-good crowd,” to which I belong, frequently minimize the importance of governmental institutions. The left-wingers want to teach how government does bad things, and the right-wingers want students to recite the constitution. Neither care to help students understand what their rights and responsibilities are and how they can shape government policy in the public interest.

The students do not help in this very much. Most think government is boring, in part because it’s complex and confusing and in part because, well, it is pretty boring to worry about jurisdictions and legal details.

Filling the citizenship vacuum requires providing students with the basic skills necessary to understand how government affects them and how they can participate in government. For students to see the need for government, the ways in which government can solve or at least ameliorate societal problems and how policy is made, they need a host of skills that are in short supply among our high school and college graduates. Among these skills are attention to detail, information gathering and evaluation skills, a problem-solving approach and the ability to work with and influence people. With these skills, students will be ready to interpret the constitution, case studies on governmental decisions and current policy debates.