We are experiencing the consequences of a long decline in citizenship – one that has afflicted politics with incivility, intolerance, excessive partisanship and grid-lock. This has cascaded to cynicism, as Americans withdraw from a political system from which they have disconnected.
Americans are less likely to belong to civic organizations than were their grandparents, choosing instead to spend more time in activities at home or with informal groups. The result is a decrease in group membership, along with less participation and lower voter turnout.
What can teachers and professors do? Require students to undertake hands-on activities aimed at changing or enhancing the status quo.
After all, a basketball team that spends the preseason in the coach’s office learning the rules and strategies of the game but never practicing would almost certainly have a dismal record. Why would it be any different with politics and government? Why learn the rules of the game if you cannot practice?
This does not mean requiring them to engage in partisan politics.
One Emporia State University student enlisted the help of a local fire chief and state representative to persuade the Kansas Department of Transportation to lower the speed limit on a dangerous stretch of highway. Prior to this project, the student was like most Americans: He could not identify his state representative, much less explain how the Legislature functioned. However, by working on an issue that was important to him, the student learned about the committee system and the oversight of agencies by the Legislature.
Other students in the introduction to political science class at Emporia State have expanded disabled accessibility on campus and in the community, gotten new water lines installed, pressured the city of Emporia to ramp up rental-housing code enforcement, and so on. The typical success story comes from a student who starts at the “B” level, who fully commits once she realizes that this curriculum will engage her in the real world, not just the classroom.
It is easy for teachers to fall into the trap of treating what we do in the classroom as a routine, forgetting that what we know and do can build social capital and enrich lives.