Won't Help Democracy
May 23, 2002
Now that he's mandated testing of every public school student in the
country, George W. Bush has a second plan to dumb down education: more
civics. Encouraging active engagement in society is a good thing, but
the president's plan has one problem: despite claims to the contrary,
it's not likely to stray very far from automaton voting, accompanied by
aggressive chants of USA! USA! We'll get even more democracy for show,
without the substance.
Public education's fundamental purpose is to inculcate community ideals
and prepare children for their allotted spot in life. In relatively wealthy
liberal communities, well-funded schools turn out decent numbers of thoughtful,
articulate, independent young people who pay attention to the world around
them, even if they don't vote all that much and don't exit high school
aiming to rock the boat. To keep the parents happy, teachers emphasize
values like critical thinking, community service, multiculturalism, and
resistance to conformity. Even if it doesn't work for everyone and doesn't
go as far as many of us would like, the parents imagine this is what education
is all about.
But they're wrong. Across the country, the combination of liberal self-image
and financial plenty is relatively unusual. In too many conservative communities
happy to beef up civics instruction, teachers aiming to please influential
parents will teach obedience to authority, obeisance to voting and other
conformist rituals, and obtuse defenses of American power, American patriotism,
and the American way of life. Back-to-the-Fifties is exactly what Bush
has in mind.
The president's civics proposal will likely parallel his mandatory
testing plan: economic incentives will push states to create civics
standards, which will then be reflected in top-down curriculum requirements.
Some states are preparing to insert more civics into the state's controversial
It's only a matter of time before states will have to show they're spending
their new federal cash effectively. Given Bush's purpose, maybe the feds
will look at the percentage of high-school graduates who vote. That's
easy to compute, easy to manipulate, and entirely consistent with the
goal of shallow democracy. It's also a lot less disruptive than giving
kids the real power they need to participate in public life as soon as
they're ready, which is at least several years younger than the law allows.
Of course, dragging more bodies to the polls would disrupt local political
campaigns, which traditionally emphasize fighting for the same small segment
of the population. So long as voters remain disproportionately white,
educated, upper-income, and middle-aged or older, yawner political campaigns
can easily ignore the majority.
But if we boosted local participation from 25% to 90%, campaigns would
have to pay some attention to the currently nonvoting majority. Especially
in local races -- even in those tonier liberal suburbs -- many candidates
acknowledge privately that, with participation rates low, chatting with
lower-income residents, renters, people of color, students, and others
whose names don't appear on regular-voter lists is simply a waste of time.
I don't mean to suggest that turning out more voters should be a top
priority. Beyond the smoke and mirrors, voting rarely results in significant
change. Often its primary virtue is to make us feel virtuous simply for
showing up and supporting the status quo.
Sometimes the emptiness is more obvious than usual. I've been wondering
why more than 3000 people voted two weeks ago in my own town's races for
School Committee and Library Trustee. The candidates had no opponents!
Isn't it ritualistic enough to take part in contested races when the candidates
don't differ publicly over significant issues? At least then there's a
winner and loser. But when the winner is preordained, it should be obvious
to everyone that the only losers are the voters.
Instead of falling in line with educational campaigns to boost voter
turnout, our schools should teach kids to consider when -- even whether
-- they should bother. Is voting a duty of citizenship? An occasionally
useful tactic? A cleverly devised diversion from more promising avenues
of social change? When has voting brought justice? When has it stood in
the way? What's the downside to representative democracy? to patriotic
fervor? to the rule of law?
Civics education will be successful when our children learn to assess
issues like these for themselves, and when their input into community
decision making matters where it really counts: outside the voting booth.
In the meantime, let's not fall on the civics-for-voting bandwagon. Let's
not add more Town Hall signs reminding us "It is your civic duty
to vote!" Instead, let's aim for real education, for real democracy.