I went to Capitol Hill yesterday to hear a panel on America’s Children: Key National Indicators of Well-Being 2005. This is a remarkable document, produced jointly by many federal agencies, that gives a detailed (if incomplete) picture of the state of children over the last 25 years.
In the audience and at a lunch event were several distinguished psychologists who have pioneered the field of positive youth development. They argue that we too often view adolescence as a period of great danger and difficulty. Thus we measure success as the absence of serious problems, such as criminality and violence, pregnancy, accidents, disease, and educational failure. The goal of parents and governments alike is to get our kids safely through to their twenties.
Adolescence is potentially a great time of life, when people can learn, socialize, expand their horizons, create, and serve others. But we tend not to measure the rate at which teenagers have such positive experiences, and we certainly don’t organize public policy to maximize positive opportunities. Of course, advocates of positive youth development want to reduce the incidence of teenage crime, disease, and other bad things. But they argue that we will get better results if we put resources into supporting positive activities, rather than preventing and punishing misbehavior. Clearly, this idea has a political valence. Liberals often want to spend money on arts programs and service-learning, and conservatives want more police. Nevertheless, the evidence for positive youth development is not merely ideological and should stand on its own.
There is a parallel–often noted by practitioners in the two fields–between positive youth development and asset-based community development, about which I have written before.
I believe that people should know some facts about politics, history, and law. You can’t get along with skills alone; and not all facts are equally important. But how do we reason about what information is essential and what is trivial?
At an event earlier this week, I heard Eugene Hickock, a former US Deputy Secretary of Education, tell two stories that he intended to shock the audience. He had recently asked a family friend who is an excellent current college student to name the final battle of the Revolutionary War, and she couldn’t come up with “Yorktown.” (In the audience, all our jaws were supposed to drop when we heard this.) Also, Dr. Hickock now teaches constitutionalism in law school. Since the states are the issue in federalism, he asks his students to name all of the state capitals–and they cannot do it!
Now, I happen to think that a list of state capitals is mere trivia (you can look them up if you need them), although if an adult US citizen doesn’t know about Sacramento, Austin, or Albany, that may reflect a lack of experience reading political news. I understand the significance of Yorktown and recognize that sacrifices were made there that have benefitted us ever since. And yet I would put the name of Yorktown far down on a list of important historical facts–far, far below the First Amendment, Franklin’s diplomacy in France, the Stamp Tax, the existence of slavery in the colonies, and even the battles of Lexington and Concord.
I suspect that a room of reasonably open-minded people would soon agree about many items on a list of crucial facts and concepts, but some disagreements would persist. What criteria can we use to address such differences?
The reconstruction of New Orleans represents an opportunity to employ techniques for civic participation that have been developed and tested over the last 30 years. For example:
Some entity (the federal or local government or a major nonprofit) could offer the dispersed citizens of New Orleans a chance to deliberate about basic issues. Should their city be developed primarily as a port, with lots of blue-collar jobs? Should its main focus be culture and tourism? How big should the population be? Should parks be built instead of houses in the most flood-prone areas?
There are excellent methods available for public deliberation. Over the next three months, people from New Orleans who have congregated in cities like Houston could be invited to forums run by AmericaSPEAKS. That’s an organization that uses technology to mediate discussions among hundreds or thousands of people who gather in convention halls or other large venues. Meanwhile, dispersed citizens who have Internet access could deliberate online using a mechanism like that of e-thePeople. Finally, small clusters of people could use the Study Circles process to deliberate in living rooms, shelters, and church basements. All these discussions could be framed in the same way, and all the groups (large and small, offline and online) could report their results to a central agency.
In Porto Alegre and other Brazilian cities, portions of the municipal budget are turned over to public assemblies to allocate. This “participatory budgeting” process has decreased corruption and increased efficiency. Why not try it in New Orleans, using (say) $20 billion of the $200 promised federal aid?
Another good prompt for public deliberation is a “charrette” process, in which teams of citizens come up with ideas for buildings and neighborhoods, and architects use software to whip up quick illustrations that the citizens can review. Adolescents should definitely be included in charrettes.
I’m not sure how many of the city’s schools need to be rebuilt because of storm damage. And there may be some desire to rebuild old neighborhood schools more or less as they were. However, to whatever extent possible, I’d recommend building much smaller middle and high schools. I’d also try to attach some of them to adult institutions like colleges, libraries, museums, and even police stations and hospitals, so that adolescents have chances to work with people younger and older than themselves. I’d also recommend designing the school buildings so that they contain spaces for democratic deliberation that the students can use frequently, and community members can use on special occasions. A good model is the new high school in Hudson, Mass., designed with civic goals with a lot of input from the kids.
Instead of reconstructing the wires that once crisscrossed New Orleans, could we make the phone and Internet systems entirely wireless? Once you start thinking about decentralized, “peer-to-peer” networks, even more radical ideas come to mind. For instance, could there be incentives for people to build solar panels on their roofs, so that residents could contribute a considerable amount of energy to the “grid” on sunny days? Having solar panels everywhere would also generate lots of skilled maintenance jobs. Or could some of the city’s sewage be treated by entrepreneurs who set up greenhouses to process waste? I have no idea what’s cost-effective, but the general idea would be to replace “hub-and-spoke” systems that reserve skilled jobs for a few (and that cost lots of cash) with decentralized systems that provide more opportunities.
I do not mean to suggest that the destruction of New Orleans is in any way a good thing, but we should try to rebuild as well as possible. I’m taking a cue here from E.J. Dionne’s interview of Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR). Blumenauer sounds like my kind of person: an enthusiast for public participation, an environmentalist who’s optimistic that we can make the lived environment better than it was before, a hawk about federal deficits, and a guy who’s “always seeking to put together left-right coalitions on behalf of his eclectic mix of ideas.” He told Dionne:
I’ve been in Congress for nearly 10 years and I’ve never been so optimistic that we have a chance not just to engage in the gargantuan task of helping people in the Gulf, but also of healing the body politic. … You’ve got to build a citizen infrastructure along with all the roads and bridges. … [P]eople should have a role in what it should be like, rather than have it done to them
I don’t know if his optimism is justified, but we certainly need ideas, energy, and innovation.
Perhaps the main reason that I am so committed to the Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools is that civic education can increase the political clout of less-advantaged kids. Here is the evidence:
People need factual knowledge to participate in politics. Unless they understand who’s running, when an election is scheduled, and what the current issues are, they simply cannot vote. The same is true for other forms of political participation, such as protest. Therefore, studies find a very strong correlation between political knowledge and participation. There is a weaker relationship between knowledge and participation in civil society.
In the US, there is a big gap in political knowledge between advantaged and disadvantaged students. While US kids overall did better than the international average on a 1999 assessment, educationally disadvantaged students scored as badly as those in the worst-performing countries. There was also a 38 percentage-point gap in expectations of voting between more advantaged and less advantaged kids. (See details on p. 5 of this pdf.)
The biggest change in civics teaching since 1972 has been the dropping of 9th grade civics. Meanwhile, social studies has been cut in many elementary schools. “American Government” classes remain common at 12th grade. But we know that only about two thirds of all students, and only one half of African Americans and Latinos, are completing 12th grade. So the disappearance of civics in earlier grades is hitting less advantaged kids harder.
In general, the quality of civics instruction is better than people sometimes assume. Most teachers use interactive lessons and actvities. However, according to the 1998 NAEP, students of color and students from low-education families were the least likely to report experiencing interactive classroom learning activities in their social studies classes, such as role-playing exercises, mock trials, visits from community members, or letter writing.
Students gain civic skills and confidence when they have a voice in the management of their schools. One way to accomplish that is by making the student government empowered and representative. But Daniel McFarland and Carlos Starmanns (Stanford) find that student governments are much more common and more empowered in affluent suburban schools than in poor urban ones.
By advocating better civics education from k-12, we hope to benefit young people who are not on track for college, young people from poor households, and young people of color. The result should be more civic and political participation by those citizens.
A young lady of deep reflection am I.
I make extracts of homilies, pound my scales,
while Lizzy and Jane, hard at work, catch the eye
of gallant lads with lots of land. To such males
of fortune, we trade my sisters’ pretty bodies.
My goods weren’t good enough for my own cousin,
though I’d have picked him over those London dandies.
To me, living with just one idiot doesn’t
sound so bad. He would never think to explore
what I keep inside books bound as Fordyce’s Sermons
To Young Ladies, or, by Miss Hannah More,
Strictures on the Modern System of Young Women’s
Education. Open those tomes from which I cite
my platitudes, and you’ll find extracts, all right–
of Malthus, Blake, the Philosophy of Right.
I know just for what those wild Frenchmen fight.