Currently, we are experiencing the consequences of a long decline in citizenship: one that has afflicted our politics with incivility, intolerance, excessive partisanship and gridlock. This has cascaded to cynicism, as Americans withdraw from a political system from which they have disconnected. Americans are less likely to belong to civic organizations than were their grandparents, choosing instead to spend more time in activities at home or with informal groups. The result is a decrease in group membership, along with less participation and lower voter turnout.
What can teachers and professors do? We argue students be required to undertake hands-on activities aimed at changing or enhancing the status quo. After all, a basketball team that spends the preseason in the coach's office learning the rules and strategies of the game but never practicing almost certainly would have a dismal record. Why would it be any different with politics and government? Why learn the rules of the game if you cannot practice? This does not mean requiring them to engage in partisan politics.
Michael Smith teaches this new curriculum in his Introduction to Political Science class at Emporia State. Many students complete astonishing work. One of the first happened in 2009, when PO 100 student (now Emporia State alumnus) Levi Poindexter enlisted the help of Norwich-area fire chief Tab Turner and former state Rep. Vincent Wetta, D-Wellington. Together, they persuaded KDOT to lower the speed limit on a dangerous stretch of highway near Suppersville, where a friend of Poindexter's had been killed in an accident. At first, Poindexter was like most Americans: He could not identify his state representative, much less explain how the Legislature functioned.
However, by working on an issue important to him, he mastered far more sophisticated lessons than that. He learned about the committee system by approaching Wetta, who was a member of the Transportation Committee. Poindexter also studied the oversight of agencies by the Legislature: He convinced Wetta, who then persuaded KDOT officials to lower the speed limit without requiring any new legislation. Finally, he learned to make allies: He could not have done this without Turner and Wetta.
Since then, PO 100 projects have expanded disabled accessibility on campus and in the community, gotten new water lines installed, pressured the city of Emporia to ramp up rental-housing code enforcement and so on. The typical success story comes from a student that starts at the "B" level, who fully commits once she realizes the curriculum will engage her in the real world, not just the classroom.
It is easy for teachers to fall into the trap of treating what we do in the classroom as a routine, forgetting what we know and do can build social capital and enrich lives. This is a wake-up call.
Michael Smith is an associate professor of political science at Emporia State University.
Bob Graham is a retired U.S. senator, former Florida governor and author or co-author of many books, including "America: The Owner's Manual," on which this curriculum is based. This column is excerpted from their article, "Teaching Active Citizenship," which originally was published in the July issue of "PS: Political Science and Politics."