30 July 2019

NOTE FROM NORM: A Strong America Starts With It’s People

I’ve spent the better part of almost 50 years involved in government, politics and public policy.

As a protestor against the Vietnam War, to my time as a young assistant in the Administration of New York Mayor John Lindsay, through my time as a United States Senator to today,  I have had an immense appreciation for civic engagement and involvement in American life.

American life has been enhanced by the participation of its citizens in all levels of public life.

From precinct caucuses, to voting judges, to those who run for public office to those that serve in our local, state and national government, American Democracy depends on citizen participation for it to thrive.

Which is why the desire of policymakers in many states, including my own state of Minnesota, to require a healthy dose of civic education as a requirement for graduation from High School is a worthy debate we should have as a country.

There is clear evidence that civic engagement and knowledge is approaching an all-time low across America.

American Progress, from an article “The State of Civics Education”, states:  A 2016 survey by the Annenberg Public Policy Center found that only 26 percent of Americans can name all three branches of government, which was a significant decline from previous years.1 Not surprisingly, public trust in government is at only 18 percent2 and voter participation has reached its lowest point since 1996.”

And, only 23 percent of eighth-graders performed at or above the proficient level on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) civics exam, according to American Progress.

This link provides a good overview of the state of civics education on a state-by-state basis: https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/education-k-12/reports/2018/02/21/446857/state-civics-education/

Teaching civics is not teaching history.

While history should give us an appreciation for what happens when a society fails to teach its people the value and purpose behind civic engagement the two are not the same.

The need for young people to understand the value of participating in their community, schools, government and public policy discussions and debate, are vital to the fabric of democracy.

It leads to a direct impact on the quality of our lives in every community.

Civic engagement doesn’t mean every citizen has to run for public office, but it should encourage every citizen to consider it.

It doesn’t demand every citizen join the armed forces, become a police officer or commit to life as a public servant, but it should underscore the value those roles play in protecting and enhancing our freedom and democracy.

How we view our role in society plays a pivotal role in how much we will invest in improving it.

Every single American, young and old, is a critical part of the cog of the future of America.

Each of us has an obligation and a responsibility to do something that has a positive impact on the community in which each of us live and the country that we call home.

Understanding how government works, and who represents us in government, is a small but important part of being civically engaged.

More important is knowing how government works, and what impact the policies those in government enact will have on our lives and our community and country.

There is a direct relationship to people’s commitment to volunteerism and their understanding of civics.

Knowing how democracy came to be, how American government is structured and how one can engage in public participation are core elements of a civic education.

How American government compares to foreign governments and the responsibilities of citizens also are important core elements of a civic education.

Opening opportunities for young people to learn these things in real-time is crucial.

Internships in government, volunteer opportunities on political campaigns and with non-profits are extraordinarily valuable tools for young people to experience first-hand what it means to make a direct impact on the quality of life of the community around them.

We should not shy away from the controversy that demanding civic education be a core part of the curriculum for every student in America.

There will undoubtedly be those who voice concern that requiring young people to learn civics is nothing more than an attempt to indoctrinate children with an ideology of one form or another.

A friend of mine shared with me a recent conversation he had with his college bound son.

His son articulated that America, unlike Russia, China or other authoritarian regimes, depends on its citizenry to understand how its government works – how the process functions – and what role they can – and should play – in civic life.

Russia, China and other authoritarian regimes depend on their citizens to lack that understanding.

More importantly to the continued existence of their power and authority, they have a vested interest in making sure their citizens are not engaged in civic life.

They know that the more their citizens know the more their citizens will oppose their government and their rule.

Which is one of the basic reasons we should insist on providing our children with a robust civic education.

We should celebrate American Democracy and all that it provides to each and every American.  It gives us the freedom to participate in American life, at whatever level we choose.

It also gives each of us the freedom to choose not to participate in American life.

Recently the City Council of St. Louis Park, Minnesota decided to abruptly end the recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance citing the discomfort that many of their citizens would have to being “required” to commit themselves to the flag of the United States of America.

The backlash was immediate, and the City Council ultimately reversed their decision. This was a classic case on an engaged citizenry putting the brakes on an out of touch governing body.

At the core of American civic life is freedom and liberty.

But, the best way, the most complete way, to take full advantage of that is to clearly understand how it all works.

The greatest freedom we enjoy as Americans is having access to the tools and knowledge of how to open up Democracy and all that it promises for each of us.

It’s those tools that have built America.

It’s the tools future generations of Americans will need to sustain it.