One of the crazy juxtapositions about the attack on the Capitol was the sight of insurrectionists slowly wandering through National Statuary Hall like fifth graders on a field trip, wide-eyed, taking photos and videos in the beautiful building they had come to attack. It was as if they had never been in such a place before, and probably many of them had not. Indeed, the indignant shouts of “This is our House!” ringing out over the pushing and shoving illustrated how very left out many of them feel. One of the reasons we are so divided as a nation is the sense that government is for some, but against others; that working cooperatively toward justice for all means the freedoms of others have to go away. Some of us feel so far from the workings of our own government that we’ve given up on caring about it at all, which ultimately translates to giving up on voting and having a say.
We must introduce an ongoing civics education in our schools. We need to start in kindergarten, discussing what it means when adults go to the polling places on Election Day. As children grow, the concepts of fairness and individual rights will expand into an understanding of personal responsibility and safety nets, public health and public infrastructure projects, the greater good and economic good, as they explore what it means to be part of the American community. Students need to understand the who, what, and where of our government structure, but more important, they need to develop an understanding of the why. Why should we vote? Why do we need to take an interest in our local government’s actions? Why do we pay taxes? Why are some people willing to give their lives to serve our country? What are our obligations as American citizens? Delaying these conversations until high school, when teenage cynicism is setting in, is a mistake. Too many American adults seem to have a very strange sense of what it means to be an American.
A comprehensive civics education should be considered part of our national security. Not having a good working knowledge of government could kill our democracy, and even kill us, as we saw at the Capitol. Unfortunately, we’ve seen highly educated senators and representatives use their intellect to shirk or manipulate the basic responsibilities of the Congress. We’ve suffered four years of a president who had a huge deficit of understanding in the constitutional law department. The new group of freshman representatives includes at least one QAnon conspiracist. How did it come to this? Because of the enormous amount of money it takes to run for even a local office, most of us will never actually serve in an elected position, but we need to be sure those we vote into these offices are qualified. Civics should be a subject that is required and valued in every school system, and there should be a universal, nonpartisan program of studies taught across the country. Our democratic future depends on it.
I can’t change the curriculum of the U.S. education system, or accomplish election reform, but I have a few suggestions for those who could make a difference:
- Invite average citizens to official state dinners. Reserve 20 seats for adults and teens who win an invitation through a lottery. The government would pay for travel, accommodations, and appropriate attire if necessary. Make them feel welcomed, scatter them throughout the attendees, and introduce them to the foreign leader being honored, so they can go home and share with their communities what it was like to be part of the event.
- State legislators should host lunches in their district’s schools. No formal agenda, just sitting, talking, and having lunch with a group of middle or high school students once a month. Let kids see that the people representing them are just people. Nothing fancy; eat the cafeteria food, or brown-bag it.
- State and federal elected officials should host occasional “Bring a Citizen to Work Day.” Bring one of your constituents to work with you. They can sit in the gallery and watch what you do. Extra points if you choose someone not of your own party.
- If you are a wealthier member of your community, consider funding the school field trip to Washington, D.C. School budgets are strained, and fundraisers only take the kids so far. Be the one who pays it forward, and gives them the chance to see Statuary Hall in person.
Our American democracy is and should be awe-inspiring, but it should not be the kind of stupefaction we saw on the faces of those who stormed the Capitol. It should be the solemn knowledge that what we have created, our republic, requires attention and nurturing. It is our responsibility to convey that concept to every citizen of the nation by including them in the experience.
Jennie Driesen is a registered nurse at Martha’s Vineyard Hospital. She moved to the Island from New York City full-time in March.