My daughter, a high school sophomore, came to me recently with a question. She was hesitant to ask, she said, but she realized as she studied for her American history class that she didn't understand the basic divisions among the three branches of government. Her textbook had referred to an important Supreme Court case, and she wasn't sure exactly how the court fit in the American system.
"I feel like I already ought to know how government works," she said, "but they've never taught us about it in school." She was much more sheepish about asking than I was surprised that she didn't know. Later in our talk, she added that "I think if you asked the kids in my class how a bill becomes law, almost nobody would know."
She's almost certainly right. Advanced Placement test scores in government and history by Florida high school students indicate that Florida's AP students -- presumably the best -- know "less about civics and U.S. history than students in virtually every other comparable state." The quote is from a report that's part of an initiative launched by former Gov. and U.S. Sen. Bob Graham and former U.S. Rep. Lou Frey. They want the state to require public schools to teach and test civics, and they want to establish and fund a center to support and coordinate civics education in Florida.
Civics issues in Florida don't start and end with our children, of course. A report by the National Conference on Citizenship places Florida 49th among the states in rates of volunteering. Meanwhile, in 2005, the Florida Bar found that four out of 10 Florida adults couldn't identify the three branches of American government and that fewer than half could correctly describe the meaning of "separation of powers." And despite the pivotal role Florida has played in the last two presidential elections, turnout rates for even the highest profile races are poor -- less than 50% in last November's election and less than 20% in the September primary. Many Floridians, polls reflect, can't identify the state's two senators, much less the local officials whose impact on their lives may be much more immediate.
And if poor voter participation mirrors a civics deficit, I think it's also reflected in what could be called plebiscite creep. There seems to be a growing inclination by both citizens groups and business interests to leapfrog the challenges of day-to-day representative democracy and boil big, complex issues down to a single, structural change in the state's constitution that's supposed to, with one fell swoop, fix a perceived problem once and for all.
Conventional wisdom has it that amendments like Save Our Homes, the bullet train, class size and the proposed, misguided Hometown Democracy amendment reflect righteous frustration with unresponsive legislators. In that context, big referendums are seen as, by definition, more "democratic."
Another view may be that they just reflect impatience and a certain amount of ignorance about the level of civic engagement and attention-paying it takes to make government work well. Democracy, at some level, ought to be slow and messy. Most progress won't come from some quick-fix piece of top-down legislation or constitutional amendment, but rather from what journalist and consultant Otis White calls a "web of collaborations, with many publics and many privates involved," at the local and regional levels.
An inclination toward push-button solutions takes the burden off of citizens to stay engaged and takes the burden off of their elected officials to keep advancing the ball. Despite all the gerrymandered districts drawn to keep incumbents safe, I still believe it's possible to throw the bums out if they're not getting the job done, and the results from the November election tell me it's still possible.
The Graham-Frey report is right in looking to the education of the younger generation as the key to building a more engaged citizenry over time. The Legislature now mandates a semester's worth of civics in middle school, but the state standards, Graham-Frey points out, focus only on the first component of citizenship education -- knowledge of names, dates and facts. The report recommends that civics instruction also address participatory skills; in other words, provide children some practice in being citizens. It calls for improving textbooks and making sure teacher certification includes integrating citizenship instruction into educators' roles.
I'm always hesitant to advocate asking more from an education system that's been burdened with too many roles as it is, but teaching children how to be good, involved Americans is every bit as important as imparting the math and verbal skills it takes to function in a world economy. As Graham-Frey points out, "When citizens do not comprehend who makes public decisions, don't understand the process by which decisions are made and can't comprehend the basic structure of government, the notion of trying to solve a personal issue or seeking to address a community problem must seem to be a distant reality."
A colleague here at Trend recently had to report for jury duty. Among the jury pool, she says, was a young man clearly uncomfortable at the notion of serving. He said he didn't understand why he was there, asking her, "Shouldn't they have a group of experts just decide these cases?" Nowhere, it seems, in his education had it been communicated to him that the ultimate genius of the American system is that it makes us, the citizens, the experts. We make the important calls.