On Civic Engagement...From Rhonda
"The tyranny of a prince is not so dangerous to the public welfare as the apathy of a citizen in a democracy." Montesquieu (French political philosopher) 1748
Complaining is a sport that we can all participate in. It takes no special skill, knowledge or physical acuity, beyond having a stomach for it. With 24-hour cable news, the Internet and talk-radio, everyone thinks they have a right to complain about politics and politicians and their “ilk.”
But what I want to know before you go off on your rage against the machine:
Did you research the candidates/issues in question? Did you attend civic meetings to learn more? Did you seek out the counsel of trusted sources? Did you actually vote? Did you try to do something? If you did not, in my opinion, you have forfeited the right to complain.
John Dewey, the preeminent American public philosopher of the 20th century, taught us that much more is at stake. Dewey viewed American democracy and education as inexorably intertwined. The issue for Dewey was not simply that our citizenry must be educated in order to choose political leaders responsibly and to hold those leaders accountable. Much more important, he conceived of our democratic society as one in which citizens should interact with each other, learn from each other, grow with each other, and together make their communities more than the sum of their parts. (Civic Engagement by Thomas Ehrlich)
Being unhappy after the fact can motivate, but it can unfortunately be too late with terrible consequences. Citizens must step up and engage in the process from the start. There is nothing more frustrating than having someone complain about a situation, and you tell him or her that the thing they are grousing about didn’t happen or changed. You shake your head and wonder how they didn’t know or why they only had one tidbit of the whole story. It isn’t that people only plug in when it directly affects them or there wouldn’t have been a suffragette or civil rights movement. With all the instant information out there, people are less informed than ever.
In the face of this boom in higher education, it is all the more disturbing that civic participation is actually declining—not expanding—in America, and that political participation is falling off precipitously. The most recent addition to a lengthy series of studies to confirm this grim reality is also the most extensive, Bowling Alone, by Professor Robert Putnam of Harvard. Putnam chronicles a pattern of declining civic participation in America and concludes that this trend has accelerated since 1985. Using data from Roper surveys, he examines 12 civic activities, similar to those considered in Voice and Equality. Across the 12, participation declined by an average of 10% between 1973-74 and 1983-84, and by 24% between 1983-84 and 1993-94. Putnam also reports that the share of the American public totally uninvolved in any of the 12 civic activities rose by nearly one-third over those 20 years. (Civic Engagement by Thomas Ehrlich)
Is it apathy? Cynicism? Disconnection? Disgust? It seems that it’s all of the above. But interestingly, one thing seems to make a difference: that is getting directly involved in the civic process.
An experiment at the University of Michigan underscores the importance of actively engaging students in the civic processes that they are studying. In a course on contemporary issues in American politics, the faculty randomly selected one group of students and asked them to become involved in community service related to local politics, in addition to doing the reading and written assignments for the course; the other students were asked to complete only the traditional assignments. The students in the service-learning sections not only earned better grades (by blind grading) and reported that they enjoyed the class more but they also became much more aware of political and social problems and more interested in acting on their heightened awareness. Several national studies about service learning have supported these findings. (Civic Engagement by Thomas Ehrlich)
I don’t want to hear derisive comments about “community activists” coming from anyone in this community or the national stage. Usually, those making the comments are just as “active” but only in their “communities” of narrow thought. They just don’t agree with the causes of the other guy. If people don’t engage in civic affairs, the democracy will not work or we will get what we deserve.
Let’s find a way to educate and engage our community. We cannot be too busy or blasé. Otherwise, we might find ourselves with no local library, rotten city services and roads, gutted public education and that doesn’t even scratch the surface. We will be looking in the rearview mirror wondering how that happened.
"Our children should learn the general framework of their government and then they should know where they come in contact with the government, where it touches their daily lives and where their influence is exerted on the government. It must not be a distant thing, someone else's business, but they must see how every cog in the wheel of a democracy is important and bears its share of responsibility for the smooth running of the entire machine." Eleanor Roosevelt
So here is the call to action to everyone wanting to ensure a future for our community: get up, get out, and get going. Be the agent of change. Don’t think someone else will do it. That is not how successful business people think, it is not how inventors think and it is not how people affecting change think. Take a stand, take your spouse, take a neighbor, a friend or your child. Show the community, but more importantly yourself, that participation matters. If you do, you can be proud that you went out and tried to make a difference. And believe me, that will be the difference.