It is common for peers my age to express a distaste for politics. Indeed, this attitude seems to afflict citizens as old as my grandparents and as young as my middle school students.

They retreat from the public sphere believing that politicians are corrupt, the system is broken and money rules. Political nihilism drives them away from civic engagement and toward private pursuits, usually mediated by smartphone, television or computer screen.

But if the political system is now broken, it’s never quite clear what golden age we might harken back to. For my more radical friends, the American system of government has served to oppress since its inception and is not worth saving. In their telling, a nation beginning with genocide and slavery can only continue to oppress. At home, they criticize mass incarceration, gun violence and economic inequality. Abroad, they condemn constellations of military bases, rampant global warming and corporate hegemony.

These challenges may seem intractable, and perhaps they are. Yet it’s hard to look at the historical record and not see progress within our country. The emancipation and enfranchisement of African-Americans. The enfranchisement and gainful employment of women. The gradual inclusion of immigrants. The recent civil rights gains for LGBT individuals. All these accomplishments beg celebration, yet they are often met with tepid enthusiasm. Yes, things have gotten better, but not quickly enough for the critics.

Civics education

Civics education is under threat in schools across the country. A focus on standardizes tests has shortchanged a focus on the history of the institutions and practices necessary to sustain democracy.

Fotalia

I am convinced that these hopeless attitudes owe something to the civic education that we provide to young people in this country. Too often, civic education is absent or minimal. Where it is present, it is sanitized and triumphant, blind to the challenges facing our country. Our civic education imagines a glorious past without helping us to cope with present dysfunction.

In my high school civics course, I was taught about the American system of government by a less-than-enthusiastic social studies teacher. I learned about the wisdom of the founders, the gradual march toward civil rights and the virtues of voting and paying taxes. The account of American history that I received was triumphant, if a bit stale and contrived. America conquered all challenges because that’s what America does, and that’s that.

It is difficult not to feel dispirited when contrasting triumph in the past with the dysfunction of the present. I think this is why my peers and I feel so betrayed. We were lied to, and it was not until we came of age that we understood the lie. We looked to Capitol Hill and saw grandstanding and brinkmanship. At home, we wondered why a magnificent and expensive rail was planned while surface roads were riddled with potholes. We could not see the invisible processes working behind the media coverage.

We sought explanation for our predicament. Some of us went to universities where professors met us with counter narratives like Howard Zinn’s “A People’s History of the United States.” Others received a patchwork education online, cobbling together a worldview via memes, Tumblr reblogs and articles fished from the Facebook newsfeed. The problems of this patchwork education are numerous.

It is difficult not to feel dispirited when contrasting triumph in the past with the dysfunction of the present. I think this is why my peers and I feel so betrayed.

First, we have abandoned a common language. As we silo ourselves within our ideological comfort zones, aided by Facebook and Google algorithms, we abandon the potential for compromise, even in the realm of language.

Consider the term “populist” which, this election cycle, has been subject to various interpretations. For some, it describes a leader in touch with the common people. For others, it is the hallmark of a fascist dictator-to-be. Still, most people slinging the term at Trump or Sanders cannot define the term and would have difficulty naming five American populists within the last century.

Second, we have compromised our decision making. Except by chance, it seems impossible for a voter to select an effective president without understanding the balance of powers between the branches of government. But a worrying number of voters this election cycle cannot name the branches of government, let alone describe their independent functions. Some cannot even identify the responsibilities of the president.

The political observer today can easily understand Hannah Arendt’s reluctance to “grant each other the right to retreat into our own worlds of meaning, and demand only that each of us remain consistent within his own private terminology.”

Civic education is under threat in schools across the country, where a focus on standardized tests has squeezed out a focus on the history of the institutions and practices necessary to sustain democracy in our country. Even more worrying, many charter schools are not obligated to provide civic education. Students may graduate from these schools without being exposed even to the sanitized and triumphant version of civic education that I experienced as a student.

When I argue that we need a renewed civic education, I do not seek to revisit the triumphalist narrative of the United States. Surely, our nation is not perfect, nor our political institutions beyond reproach. Even so, we need to have a common language with which to understand the political issues of our day. We need an understanding of history which can inform our present action. A more balanced and realistic civic education is a start.

As the election cycle draws to a close, we must consider the preparation that students receive for their future civic engagement. Democracy will always be an unfinished project, one sustained as each new generation continues the work of the last. Those who inherit this project must know that democracy does not exist without work, just as a loving relationship is not effortless. They must explore the many paths to having their will realized in policy.

Most important, young people should learn that history is not inevitable. Each generation before them faced difficult choices and worked to determine the course of events. That is the central lesson that civic education ought teach. Confronted with difficulty, citizens within a democracy work together to find a solution. That democratic process is always contentious, and rarely satisfies all participants. Still, it is preferable to all others.

Community Voices aims to encourage broad discussion on many topics of community interest. It’s kind of a cross between Letters to the Editor and op-eds. This is your space to talk about important issues or interesting people who are making a difference in our world. Columns generally run about 800 words (yes, they can be shorter or longer) and we need a photo of the author and a bio. We welcome video commentary and other multimedia formats. Send to news@civilbeat.org. The opinions and information expressed in Community Voices are solely those of the authors and not Civil Beat.

About the Author

  • Sterling Higa
    Sterling was raised in Nuuanu. He graduated from Roosevelt High School and later earned a master’s degree in education from Harvard University. Sterling now works as a debate coach and lecturer at Hawaii Pacific University. By candlelight, he is finishing his Ph.D. in education at the University of Hawaii at Manoa.