Sandra Day O’Connor, the former Supreme Court Justice who gasped at last week’s abysmal results in the 2010 NAEP Civics Report Card, has lately lent her name and expertise to a new venture designed to get young people more interested in government.
With iCivics.org, we may have found at least the beginnings of a winning formula.
Most of us learned about our government through one, or both, of two methods. The first involved a careful reading of our founding documents, followed by meticulous listing of the powers, checks, balances and responsibilities of each part of our government. The second almost always came in the form of “Schoolhouse Rock” episodes covering the aforementioned founding documents in a zippy soundtrack and crude 1970s animation.
The good news is that it gave a student a pretty good foundation of the structure of our government on paper. Unfortunately, it left out a whole bunch of factors that not only make our democracy fun, but also effective.
I’m pretty sure your teacher never mentioned anything about the K Street lobbyists that encircle the chambers of Congress like vultures on carrion.
How about the backroom deals and handshake contracts that often seal a bill’s fate?
Did he/she mention the ideological mambo that is electoral politics? You know, the quick sashay to the right/left in the primary, followed by the mad dash to the center for the general election?
What about the backstabbing and double-dealing within the President’s cabinet—and a First Lady’s often not-so-secret desire to fire them all?
Perhaps he/she mentioned the constant shifting mood of voters, the need to pander to differing constituencies that probably hate each other, the campaign ads designed not on issues but on making your opponent the spawn of Satan, and the life and death struggle of pollsters and their “representative samples”?
Yeah, never learned any of that in school, neither.
iCivics is designed to appeal to those students who have felt distant or left out of the process of governing. Through lessons, media and especially games, students can get a taste of the murky water that is the reality of American politics. The games are the main focus, as they help enforce lessons in the classroom in a fun way, often with a refreshing honesty.
One game I particularly enjoyed is Represent Me!, where you pretend to be a Congressman, selecting and voting on bills to become law. However, don’t think for a minute you can vote on principle and get away with it. In a refreshing sense of reality, there are meters for each of the different constituencies in your district, and you have to pander to enough of them to get re-elected. By the end, you’ve created your own campaign ad and you see if you get another term.
I voted my conscience, and I got booted. That’s pretty freaking real.
Other games include arguing before the Supreme Court, serving as the President for a term, even guiding immigrants through the citizenship process. iCivics has games that cover the whole gambit of political life in this country. Furthermore, as in the Congress game, they pull few punches when it comes to the less-than-noble realities of politics. They never go whole-hog on the real-deal of Washington, but it gives students an important glimpse into a process rarely covered in textbooks.
It would be nice if some of the games went further, into the seedy underbelly of party politics, primaries, lobbyists, budget battles, etc. Wouldn’t it be fun for kids to cut a backroom deal in the cloakroom before an important vote? Or maybe to court opposing PACs and advocacy groups in order to vote for certain laws that may not benefit your voters? Or even to do “opposition research” on your campaign rival—research that’ll show up on the nightly news and next week’s attack ads?
Many educators would be shocked that I would endorse such a frank discussion of our nation’s government. They would prefer to stay to checks and balances and “I’m Just a Bill” and let our students keep believing that our system works exactly the way it should.
In a different setting, this may work. It just doesn’t work with kids who are already knee-deep in the bullshit of government.
One huge assumption that I had to overcome with students is that they have an innate sense of acquiescence to authority. To a middle-class kid like me, the government and the Constitution was as holy as the Vatican. They were both made of marble, both have old people at the helm, and both have complicated rules and consequences. It wasn’t until my older years that the picture-perfect vision of our democracy was clouded by reality.
The populations I serve, as those of many other teachers, are under no such illusions.
Many already have a deep suspicion of law enforcement and government, and for good reason. They come from countries where authoritarian tyranny or criminal lawlessness abounds. They are in contact with government agencies and bureaucracies often on a daily basis, and not always in a positive way (from food stamps to the penitentiary).
They already know the hypocrisy of civic life. It does them no good to re-hash a paper structure that’s an illusion in their mind.
The only real way for students to believe in our system is to confront openly the inconsistencies and hypocrisies that we adults see as almost inherent in the system. iCivics, in an important first step, is attempting to come to grips with these realities, while also extolling those elements that make our system unique, special and effective.
Its important for students to see our system for what it is, even if it isn’t the idealized version we expect from the Founders or Mr. Smith heading to Washington. To be fair, it probably never was that neat and clean anyway…and that’s the fun part.
Yes, civics and government can be fun. It just needs a healthy dose of reality to make it so.