There has been no shortage of soul-searching since the tragic shooting spree in Tucson, Ariz. The local sheriff speculated “that the rhetoric about hatred, about mistrust of government, about paranoia of how government operates and to try to inflame the public on a daily basis … has impact on people especially who are unbalanced personalities to begin with.”
Is this what motivated the alleged perpetrator of the carnage? It appears not. But there is no denying that uncivil discourse has become the norm today, feeding on fear and discontent and drowning out voices of moderation. The 24-hour news cycle transmits uncivil diatribes at unprecedented speed and with incessant repetition. The Internet and cable television narrowcasting have produced personalized political hamlets of “right-minded” people. We abandon young citizens to sink or swim in this caustic environment by starving civic education in the schools, leaving graduates ill-equipped to navigate the waves of vitriol that often roil our politics. Those not swallowed up by it too often seek out the nearest sheltered harbor to tie up, give up, and look on from a safe shore.
We have overlooked the deleterious effects of incivility and government bashing on the civic formation of youth, and risk raising a generation of onlookers rather than willing oarsmen in the ship of governance. We need to prepare the young to effectively carry out the office of citizen in their democracy. This preparation requires civic knowledge, civic skills, civic dispositions, and the opportunity to apply and practice each. Of these, public and private institutions have focused considerable attention on civic dispositions through community service. The benefits of community service are manifold. It demonstrates that civil society can solve many community problems without government, it fosters a sense of self-efficacy, and it promotes traits of good character such as empathy and concern for the common good.
Service alone is not enough, though, because far too many young people see community service as the sheltered harbor protecting them from the tainted and tainting turmoil of governing. Moreover, some community problems and goals can only be addressed through government. And engagement with government requires more than good character and an inclination to engage. It requires knowledge and skills that are taught and practiced. Civic knowledge includes core democratic principles, the workings of democratic institutions, and how to apply that knowledge to real-life decision making on public policy issues. Civic skills include analyzing and explaining issues, taking and defending a stand, evaluating arguments, and writing persuasively. Add to these a cluster of participation skills, such as interacting effectively with those in governance positions and monitoring how policies are implemented. And perhaps the most important skill in today’s environment is effective and reasoned deliberation, without resorting to hateful rhetoric that demonizes opponents and solves nothing.
Government in the Commonwealth has an important role to play in the formation of young citizens. First, our public servants must recognize that what they say – and, especially, what they do – affects young people’s attitudes toward government and their willingness to participate in public affairs. Second, our leaders can demonstrate their commitment to improving civic learning by following through on what they initiated in 2008. At that time, the Massachusetts Legislature and the governor established a Special Commission on Civic Engagement and Learning. Its charge was to assess the status of civic education from kindergarten through undergraduate college education, to investigate opportunities for effective service learning and other programs that teach civic engagement knowledge and skills, and to identify best practices in civic education. Unfortunately, the clock ran out and the commission was never convened.
In light of recent events and national dialogue, it is time to reauthorize the Special Commission on Civic Engagement and Learning and to provide it sufficient time to carry out its charge. A broad and robust approach to civic education and engagement can boost citizens’ resistance to the demagogue’s appeal and can help them cut through rhetorical obfuscation. It can foster the knowledge and skills needed to engage competently and confidently in the governance of our communities. The commission would be a comprehensive first step to improve the quality of civic discourse and to re-engage citizens with their elected officials in the shared task of governing. In uncivil times, government can be part of the solution.
Dr. Charles S. White is the director of Projects in Civic Engagement at Boston University School of Education.