#sschat on Local Government and Education – Oct 10, 2015

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Local Government

or

Why Voting for Mayor is More Important than Voting for President

Hosted by Kevin Roden, City Councilman (Denton, TX)
@KevinRodenlearn more about me

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I’m honored to guest host a Social Studies Twitter Chat (#sschat) on Monday evening at 6pm (CST) to discuss with K-12 Social Studies teachers the importance of local government on our democracy, the depressingly small amount of time devoted to teaching it at all levels of education, and why all of this matters.

THE PROBLEM

I frequently give talks to university students about local government. I like to start the discussion with a quiz, by show of hands, to see how many students know the name of the President, their Governor, and maybe even their US Senator. Just about everyone raises their hand. I then ask how many of them know the name of the Mayor in their hometown or even the town in which they are currently going to school. Needless to say, it is rare when a single hand is raised.

This lack of awareness (dare I say, lack of interest) of the people and issues of their local government is apparent in voting behavior in cities across America. In my own city of Denton, Texas, young people come out in droves for Presidential elections, but largely leave it to the city’s senior citizens to determine the policy direction of their own city. Consider the following voting data from November 2008 (Presidential election year), November 2010 (mid-term election with Texas Governor’s race on the ballot), and May 2010 (Denton City Council election):

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 There is much to discuss as to why this is the case, but for the purpose of today’s #sshat I’d like to focus in on the educational component of it.

Ideally, the very purpose of including history, government, civics, and the like into a school curriculum is to foster the values associated with citizenship among our youth (or perhaps this itself is controversial?). One wonders what we are teaching our kids about what it means to be a democratic citizen with so much attention and focus given to the federal level of government?

Think about it: what does it mean to be a democratic citizen if most, if not all, of our attention is on the goings on of the federal government? You get to vote every 4 years. A very small number of people ever write their national leaders and even they resort to form letters in letter-writing campaigns. The chances of a substantial back and forth with your elected representative are virtually zero unless you happen to be a wealthy donor. So most of our engagement with the players and issues tends to be our reaction to the shiny objects the two parties and political personalities dangle in front of us. And that tends to take the form of getting in polarized fights on social media, listening to only the media outlets that confirm our point of view, and subsequently unfriending our “friends” who don’t agree with us.

Welcome to the sad state of American democracy in 2015: disconnected, polarized, and full of Facebook fights.

Yet this state of democracy is all very foreign to our American roots. Alexis de Tocqueville in his book, Democracy in America, observed that democracy at the federal level worked precisely because it was first learned, practiced, and quite vibrant at the local level. Consider the following from Tocqueville:

“It is nonetheless in the township that the force of free peoples resides.  The institutions of a township are to freedom what primary schools are to science; they put it within reach of the people; they make them taste its peaceful employ and habituate them to making use of it.  Without the institutions of a township a nation can give itself a free government, but it does not have the spirit of freedom.  Fleeting passions, the interests of a moment, the chance of circumstances can give it the external forms of independence; but despotism suppressed in the interior of the social body reappears sooner or later on the surface.”

If we take Tocqueville seriously here (and I think we have good reason to do so), it is in the context of a city where we learn how to be democratic citizens. It is there where politics is concrete and meaningful. It is at the dinner table or playground where we learn early on how to temper our passions, compromise for a common good, and practice the civic art of diplomacy. In a city, the extremists, polarizers, and uncompromising few are rightfully relegated to the fringes of political conversation and whose only real voice is relegated to the comment section of the local newspaper. It’s in the city where I can run into my local representatives at church, the grocery store, community festival, or cafe. Only in the city can I be meaningfully put to work for the common cause of our local politic and be given a significant role in creating the city that I love.

But if all this is reversed and we have a generation of Americans whose democratic rearing is had primarily with an eye to national politics, what is the warning from Tocqueville? He’s quite explicit here: you are raising a generation of despots and tyrants who know nothing of democracy, precisely because they’ve never learned it at the only level where it can be practiced: locally.

I look forward with discussing the education angle of this important issue with those who are charged with shaping the next generation – our educators. Join us at 6pm (CST) on Monday night by following #sschat on Twitter.

QUESTIONS FOR THE CHAT:

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