So You Think You Can Self-Govern…

This summer I’ve been working with a few colleagues and consultants to revise GC’s action civics curriculum and the associated trainings. One of the major things we’ve wrestled with is how we teach enough basics of government so that students, Democracy Coaches (our college volunteers), and teachers can actually figure out how to address their focus issue for the semester. And it turns out that the Schoolhouse Rock method of civics instruction isn’t going to cut the proverbial mustard.

Consider the following problems and see if you can figure out which level (i.e., federal, state, etc.) and which branch their solutions might fall under:

  1. The area around your school/community is covered with litter and no one is cleaning the streets.
  2. Your school lacks healthy food options.
  3. A large percentage of families you know are suffering from food insecurity, and food banks and food stamps are insufficient.

Okay, pencils down. Now number one is easy. All you need to do is call up the city department of streets and sanitation. Unless of course it’s a state roadway you’re talking about. Or if the trash cans are actually supposed to be provided by a public-private business improvement district or adopt-a-highway program. Or maybe it’s a funding issue, and you actually need to go to the city council to ensure the department of streets and sanitation has enough budgeted to actually fund trash cans or street cleaning. Or maybe it’s actually the county government. That probably depends on your jurisdiction. (You should just know.)

Okay, well number two should definitely be easy. All you need to do is talk to the cafeteria lady and ask her to adjust the menus. Or ask the principal to increase funding in the budget to buy healthier food. Unfortunately that’s not likely to work so well. Turns out that the National School Lunch Program is run by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which sets nutrition requirements and actually provides much of the food. Except the nutrition requirements routinely get politicized and hijacked by the food lobby. (Who knew that pizza is a vegetable?) Of course the way the program actually gets implemented is at the state and local levels. But wait, you ask yourself. It’s not like cities have departments of agriculture. Right you are. The U.S. Department of Agriculture administers the program through state departments of education who in turn liaise with local districts. Confused yet? Oh, and by the way, schools are reimbursed at the princely sum of $2.86 per free lunch (and $0.78 for a free snack!), which can buy you roughly one half of an organic multigrain cracker.

I’ll spare you on number three. Here’s a link if you want to know how food stamps work.

So how did you do? If it makes you feel better, I’m actually willing to bet that most of GC’s staff couldn’t answer this (and they are well educated and engaged people). I’ll confess that even though I knew the broad outlines for these (I made the questions after all), I had to Google a few details to figure out exactly who does what on school lunches and food stamps. Is it any surprise that most Americans – even educated ones – spurn civic engagement?

One of the problems is that the post-New Deal modern regulatory state looks nothing the 18th century model we’re taught in school. But the complexity of government, which is in part reflective of the complexity of an industrial/post-industrial economy, is itself one of the greatest barriers to civic engagement. And along with government, our ideas of citizenship have changed as well.

What’s going on here? Is the complexity of government (or the degree of complexity we currently have) an inevitable byproduct of our contemporary economic order? Or is our three branches, checks-and-balances system the problem in the first place? (Compare to parliamentary systems where the executive and legislative are more fused.) And is civic education capable of training citizens who can hold such government to account, or is the nature of democratic citizenship changing in fundamental (and less traditionally “democratic”) ways?

– Daniel Millenson, Managing Director