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Brookline TAB
Brookline, Massachusetts

Civics Education
and Ritualistic Voting

Dennis Fox

May 23, 2002


Now that he's mandated testing of every public school student in the country, George W. Bush has a second plan to dumb down education: more civics. Now, I'm all in favor of activist engagement in society. There's one problem, though: despite claims to the contrary, the president's goal is unlikely to stray very far from automaton voting, accompanied by aggressive chants of USA! USA!

Public education's fundamental purpose is to inculcate community ideals and prepare children for their allotted spot in life. Here in Brookline, our well-funded schools turn out a decent number of thoughtful, articulate, independent young people who pay attention to the world around them even if they don't vote all that much. To keep the parents happy, many teachers emphasize values like critical thinking, community service, multiculturalism, and resistance to conformity. We imagine this is what education is all about.

But we're wrong. Brookline's liberal self-image and financial plenty are relatively unusual. In too many conservative communities ready to beef up civics instruction, teachers aiming to please influential parents will teach obedience to authority, obeisance to voting and other conformist rituals, and obtuse defenses of American power, American patriotism, and the American way of life. Back-to-the-Fifties is exactly what Bush has in mind.

The president's civics proposal will likely parallel his mandatory testing plan: economic incentives will push states to create civics standards, which will then be reflected in top-down curriculum requirements. In Massachusetts, there's already a Senate effort to insert more civics into the state's controversial history curriculum.

It's only a matter of time before states will have to show they're spending their new federal cash effectively. Given Bush's purpose, maybe the feds will look at the percentage of high-school graduates who vote. That's easy to compute, easy to manipulate, and entirely consistent with the goal of shallow democracy. It's also a lot less disruptive than giving kids the real power they need to participate in public life as soon as they're ready, which is at least several years younger than the law allows.

Of course, dragging more bodies to the polls would disrupt local political campaigns, which traditionally emphasize fighting for the same small segment of the population. So long as voters remain disproportionately white, educated, upper-income, and middle-aged or older, yawner political campaigns can easily ignore the majority.

But if we boosted participation from 25% to 90%, campaigns would have to pay some attention to the currently nonvoting majority. Many candidates acknowledge privately that, with participation rates low, chatting with lower-income residents, renters, non-whites, students, and others whose names don't appear on regular-voter lists is simply a waste of time.

I don't mean to suggest that turning out more voters should be our top priority. Beyond the smoke and mirrors, voting rarely results in significant change. Often its primary virtue is to make us feel virtuous simply for showing up and supporting the status quo.

Sometimes the emptiness is more obvious than usual. I've been wondering why more than 3000 people voted two weeks ago in Brookline's races for School Committee and Library Trustee. The candidates had no opponents! Isn't it ritualistic enough to take part in contested races when the candidates don't differ publicly over significant issues? At least then there's a winner and loser. But when the winner is preordained, it should be obvious to everyone that the only losers are the voters.

Instead of falling in line with educational campaigns to boost voter turnout, our schools should teach kids to consider when -- even whether -- they should bother. Is voting a duty of citizenship? An occasionally useful tactic? A cleverly devised diversion from more promising avenues of social change? When has voting brought justice? When has it stood in the way? What's the downside to representative democracy? to patriotic fervor? to the rule of law?

Civics education will be successful when our children learn to assess issues like these for themselves, and when their input into community decision making matters where it really counts: outside the voting booth.

In the meantime, let's not fall on the civics-for-voting bandwagon. Let's not add more Town Hall signs reminding us "It is your civic duty to vote!" Let's do better.

Alternate version for non-Brookline audience

Note: this version may differ from the published version.

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