At the opening of his essay “A Rational for Civic Education.” Ralph Ketcham cites America’s forefather Thomas Jefferson who noted that to understand their rights, to maintain them, and to exercise with intelligence their parts in self-government (Ketcham 145). Jefferson understood the great travails that people had to undertake in order to become free. He truly felt that each person to come had a civic duty to preserve this great freedom. I am in complete agreement with Ketcham that civic education is important, but it is a harder task to accomplish than one might think. This attitude is embodied by many adults today, but it is harder and harder to make younger people understand its relevance.
Unfortunately, over the centuries, people have forgotten the original concept of freedom as a privilege and see themselves as entitled to all the rights they can claim. How many court cases have involved some sort of rights violation, as if everybody had a right to have everything he wanted? Civic education is important for people to learn to give back to the country what the country has given to them. Instead of the country owing them, they owe the country, which was poignantly noted in John F. Kennedy’s famous words “ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.” Decades after Jefferson’s speech, President Truman sadly noted that college graduates often fell short of the human wholeness and civic conscience which the cooperative activities of citizenship require” (Ketcham 146).
Basically, Ketcham argues that this trend occurred as colleges and secondary schools began to see more and more diversity in their populations of students and faculty members and higher degrees of specialization in the teachers. Because of all this difference, the general “one-size-fits-all” course of Civics became many course offerings at the college level to suit diverse interests and to, perhaps, not offend one of the many subsets of citizens in the process (146-147).
Civics in many high schools is taught to students as young as fourteen and fifteen years old; these individuals are too young to drive a car, vote in an election, or even to conceptualize their roles as a citizen, let alone practice civic responsibility and self-government.
In his essay, Ketcham spends a lot of time discussing the mass accumulation of data that political and social science now demands and concludes that its intended purpose is political agenda, not self-governing. Fact seeking is a safe activity, and most educated individuals know that statistics can be made to say whatever a person wants, or needs, them to say.
However, another plausible explanation is that individuals are no longer learning how to serve government, but instead they are learning how to avoid serving, how to find miniscule violations of supposed rights, to keep from having to do anything they don’t want to do. It seems that many of these courses don’t teach citizenship, but teach how to avoid it. The operate on the idea that “your rights are violated if…” rather than “for your rights, you should do this….”
Ketcham acknowledges that teaching the public to serve the government is difficult because of differing opinions on what “right” is. The natural law may still be intact, but the different religions and cultures that make up the United States can make agreement difficult. Add to that the inclination for human beings to be selfish and self-serving and the process is muddied further (148-149).
Ketcham cited Reinhold Nieuhr who says that “man’s capacity for justice makes democracy possible; but man’s inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary” (151). While some people do take civic-minded responsibility very seriously, many others do not. It seems that Ketcham does not really trust people to undertake their civic roles independently and that he is probably correct in his hesitation.
Basically, Ketcham is arguing that individuals, left to their own devices, will not automatically mold into self-governing entities. The problem is that he doesn’t really explain how a civic education will accomplish this. While most people agree that a civic education is important, few really know how to turn that into a positive populace. Even those civic duties that are extremely well-understood are severely underutilized. In this fast-paced society, people just don’t want to take the time.
For example, one civic duty that is actually the source of much bloodshed around the world right now is voting. While the recent presidential elections have been more exciting than most, the average percentage of people voting during non-Presidential election years in my state is between 12 and 18%. These people all know that they are allowed, even compelled, to vote, but still more than four-fifths of the state does not do so. These numbers are similar for most states, especially among young people. How do we convince these people to vote? They have to know that their individual vote matters. Most people do not really believe that.
Next, another civic duty that I have had more than my fair share of is jury duty. Jury duty is a disruptive irritation to most people. Unless a juror is lucky (or unlucky) enough to be placed on the O.J. or Paris Hilton trial, most cases are dull and boring. At my most recent summons, I watched as one person after another attempted to weasel out of doing the duty. In fact, over a third of the jury pool did not show up.
The bailiff assured those of us remaining that they would be subpoenaed to the judge, but few of us believed it. The running joke is that the only members of a jury are those too stupid to get out of jury duty. If this is the case, people seem to be actively seeking ways to avoid self-government. To make matters worse, I got a parking ticket for parking where I was told to park. It seems that the government is actually repelling people from becoming active citizens.
Unfortunately, many people will still gripe and groan. Perhaps the best civic education would be to teach silence to those who don’t intend to participate. Those who do participate can then assemble and appeal all they want to. Unfortunately, it seems that only the most extreme groups have the motivation to organize pickets, sit-ins and the like. The rest of the citizens are just too busy. What about writing letters to the governor or congressmen? Well, America has seen enough shows like West Wing to know that those letters barely make it to a third of fourth string aide. If we are to be self-governing, we must be certain that our government will listen.
Ketcham makes a valid argument that people should all be introduced to a general civics course at some point during their education. Certainly every citizen should be well versed in what it takes to be a civic-minded individual. However, he seems at a loss about how to go from the esoteric and ideal concept of a self-governing populace to the pragmatics of actually making that happen. If this push toward the more civic-minded citizen is to happen, the obstacles that the government and individuals have created will have to be identified, addressed, and overcome.