We ALL Need A Class on Citizenship—Now More than Ever

I only remember two things about my high school government classes: first, we watched Mr. Smith Goes To Washington, and second, the final exam was a joke.  All we had to do was copy a list of the US Presidents from our textbooks.  Needless to say, I didn’t learn much in those classes.  Once I got to college, I took an Introduction to Political Science course that taught me the basic information every citizen should know about how our government functions and how our society operates.  But what about the people who didn’t get to go to college and take that political science course?  How are they supposed to learn the same fundamental political information?  If society is depending on classes like the ones I took in high school to provide a civic education for the majority of the American people, then we’re all screwed!

Perhaps this is the reason that we now find ourselves at a point where INTEREST and ENGAGEMENT in politics are at all time highs while basic political KNOWLEDGE and TRUST in government are at all time lows.  Whether you’re a Democrat or a Republican, this is a recipe for disaster.

So Let’s DO Something!

Like millions of you across the country, the 2016 Presidential Election motivated me to get more engaged in the political process.  I have a Master’s Degree in Political Science from The Ohio State University.  I have taught African American Politics courses at the College of Charleston.  I have served as a consultant for political campaigns.  Yet, I felt that I needed to do more.  I wanted to roll up my sleeves and get directly involved in the election.  As I watched news reports and engaged in political conversations with family and friends, I sensed an overwhelming disgust and distrust of government.  So instead of volunteering for a particular candidate or political party, I decided to go to work for the Charleston County Board of Elections.  My job was to answer questions about voting and registering to vote from the thousands of local citizens that called in during the last few weeks before the election.  This gave me the opportunity to speak directly with members of my community from all walks of life.  I spoke with Democrats, Republicans, young people, old people, people who had voted in every election they were eligible for, and people who were trying to vote for the very first time.  I learned a few things from that experience:

  • First, I have complete confidence in the process and results of any election in Charleston County, South Carolina.  They know what they’re doing, and they’re good at it!
  • Second, there is a deep distrust of our government among both Democrats and Republicans that stems in part from a lack of basic political knowledge.  Callers on both sides, for example, that missed the voter registration deadlines were convinced that the other side was somehow trying to stop them from voting.  Several callers even asked if their votes were going to be thrown away.  Multiple callers wanted to verify that deceased family members’ names had been removed from the voting rolls.  Others invented conspiracy theories about everything from the order that political parties and candidates were listed on the ballot to the color of the “I Voted” stickers.  Many of these callers’ worst fears could have been easily debunked with a basic civics course.
  • Third, we NEED to take political education more seriously in this country!  Questions like “When is the election?” “Do I have to register to vote?” and “How many candidates can I vote for?” demonstrate that some everyday Americans could use a refresher course on the basics.  But it’s deeper than that.  The more you learn about politics, the more you begin to appreciate the RIGHTS and RESPONSIBILITIES of your citizenship.  Ever wonder what happened to our sense of civic duty?  People actually called in wanting to know why they couldn’t vote on a website or email their vote in because they were too busy to go to their precincts and wait in line.  In a world of instant gratification, voting has become little more than an inconvenience to some people.  However, for others, voting in THIS election was the most important thing in the world.  I was overwhelmed by the number of calls I received from people on both sides who had not voted in over a decade (or sometimes even longer) but wanted to make sure that they were registered to vote this time.  For better or worse, people are paying more attention to politics now than ever, and they need the proper context to understand what they are witnessing and respond.

I hope that we reform our educational system.  I hope that one day students will take classes on how politics and society work at every level of their education, but there’s no time to wait.  Every day there is a new Executive Action or a new policy position that the American people need to understand.  In order to really do that, they need to understand the limits of executive power that are defined in the Constitution.  They need to understand how laws are passed.  They need to understand our government’s separation of powers and its system of checks and balances.  They need to know the roles that Congress, various foreign leaders, and business executives are playing in President Trump’s agenda, and most importantly, they need to know how they, as citizens, will be affected.  All of a sudden, the Schoolhouse Rock cartoons and all of that stuff you memorized for a test and then quickly forgot about years ago has become CRITICAL.  You have to understand what President Trump is doing in order to be able to hold him and his Administration accountable.

Citizenship101.info is offering a political education to everyday folks.  It’s one professor’s attempt to talk to the American people about politics the same way that I would talk to my friends and family members: with a lot of explaining along the way, a little bit of humor, and nothing but the best intentions.  My posts will cover important political concepts as they relate to today’s news.  They will be conversational, informative, and hopefully entertaining.  I will also post contributions from my colleagues.  These guest posts will be from people that I studied with, worked with, and taught during my career.  However, I am always interested in collaboration, so please contact me if you feel like you have something to add.

My goal is for this to be an interactive space.  I welcome your comments on any and all of my posts and will do my best to respond to them, but remember, the purpose of this blog is to EDUCATE not to HATE.  There is no shortage of websites where you can express your hatred for politicians and policies.  This is not one of them.  I want this to be a constructive educational space.  I don’t care which political party you support or who you voted for, EVERYONE needs to learn more about the rights and responsibilities that come with their citizenship.  That means that you’re free to disagree with politicians, with me, or with each other, but there will be no name-calling or insults in the comments on this domain.  All such posts will be deleted.  We’re all adults, so let’s act like it.  We can’t learn anything if we can’t talk to each other.

I love Merriam-Webster’s definition of citizenship: “the quality of an individual’s response to membership in a community.”  What an interesting way to think about it.  If American society is our community, then according to this definition, our membership (or citizenship) requires a response.  We are all responding to the actions of this Administration in our own ways.  My response is doing what I do best: educating others.

What will your response be?