As I was watching the Democratic Presidential debate last night, I was taken with how Clinton explained to Sanders that he would never get his agenda passed. Basically Clinton argued that Sanders lived in a fantasy land and his agenda would never move forward in such a polarized system. During this very exchange, I noticed a small ticker tape along the bottom of the screen saying that the siege on a wildlife refuge militia members in Oregon had finally ended. And, I thought to myself, what an exceptional democracy we have created.
On one hand, we have an idealist who wants to be President and promises to change bedrock elements of the system, but who is told that he can’t because of the system is to dysfunctional to even discuss his ideas. On the other hand, we have an idealist (who some would call an extremist) who doesn’t think the system will ever work and has taken it upon himself to seize government land – a doomed strategy that sadly ended in one death.
I think we can all agree that we have more than a little problem with how democracy is working. A recent study presented at a conference in Istanbul found that young people are mostly ambivalent about democracy itself. Christopher Beem, writing in the The New Republic, blames the turn away from democratic ideals on the incredible amount of money spent on campaigns, the increase in voter restrictions, and service learning.
Service learning, a little known and little used educational methodology is to blame for young people turning against democracy? I am having a hard time getting on board with that argument. Mr. Beem, who runs the McCourtney Institute of Democracy, argues that service learning has displaced traditional civic education and that service learning teaches young people to be “extremely generous and socially conscious” but not to be interested in politics.
I find this argument interesting, but wrong. First, service learning is not squeezing out traditional civic education. In fact, the use of both in schools is actually declining. Second, when done well, service learning engages young people in the very civic system we hope to save. Young people doing service learning projects are working with cities to change how they deal with stormwater, engaging communities in expanding riparian zones around fragile rivers, and working with their school administration to address the dropout crisis. Youth learn democratic practice by taking part in democratic processes – not by reading a textbook that describes how the founding fathers came together to write the Bill of Rights.
If you want young people who are prepared and motivated to participate in our civic system, then we should be supporting programs like Mikva Challenge and Earth Force. Both organizations give young people the opportunity to actually participate in the civic/political life of their communities. Our goal is to have young people play a role in ensuring that we have “good government.” A government that is responsive to the needs of its citizens – not to those who make the largest campaign contribution.
I agree with Mr. Beems contention that we can (and should) have better civic education in our schools. But, I strongly believe the solution lies within service learning and action civics. Let’s focus on creating a civic education that actively teaches students how to be civic actors by participating in the civic system. It is pretty basic really, we learn by doing.
Vince Meldrum is an experienced leader with a 25-year history of transforming organizations through program development, innovative technology, and cross-sector partnerships. Vince’s expertise brings Earth Force into the center of the climate resiliency movement. With a specific focus on people, having built several large-scale partnerships, Vince offers a unique perspective on the role of community and youth in the future of our environment.