Commentary Magazine

To Foster Citizenship, Preach Less, Teach More

It is commencement season at our colleges and universities. Over at the Atlantic, law professor Andrew Guthrie Ferguson has a useful piece on how, amid commencement calls for global citizenship and volunteerism, more mundane and local citizenship responsibilities, like serving on a jury, or running for the school board, are neglected.

Ferguson does not expect that our commencement speaker roster of politicians, actors, and the occasional Muppet will take up his call to speak less about following one’s passion and more about running for borough council. But he does hope that students and their teachers will consider that for almost all of us it “is not about changing the world in a boundless future but engaging constitutional responsibilities in the grounded present.”

Especially helpful is his emphasis on local government. “Local elective offices,” he argues, “go unfilled or ill-filled because not enough people desire to participate.” The size and scope of the federal government notwithstanding, local government is still where much of the action is. Important objectives, from the safety of our neighborhoods to the quality of our schools, ride in part on the work of local government. Moreover, while one of our children may be president some day, it is much more likely that they can do useful and satisfying work at the local level. Consequently, Ferguson is right that daily “citizenship means recalibrating our gaze to look at the local duties that need our support.”

That said, efforts to inspire students to fulfill their constitutional responsibilities are not lacking, even if they don’t typically manifest themselves on graduation day. For example, while Ferguson is right that many young people stay away from the polls on Election Day, it is not for want of efforts to inspire them to go. Setting aside “Rock the Vote” and its cousins, faculty members–whether in the expectation that young people will vote for their favored candidate or out of genuine interest in promoting civic engagement, or both–have never been shy about urging students to get to the polls. Every election season, there is talk of canceling classes, or excusing individual absences, in order to make it as easy as possible for students to vote.

Perhaps students would find voting more compelling if they were less often nagged to do the right thing and more often engaged in the high-stakes questions of principle and practice that have always been part of American politics. Without denying that “angry and malignant passions” and corruption are permanent and prominent features of the landscape, civic educators should aim to offer an account of American politics that illuminates the extent to which there has been a place for reflection even in our most poisonous political controversies, and thereby illuminate the possibility of reflective citizenship. The Jack Miller Center for Teaching America’s Founding Principles and History does excellent work in this area.

The study of American political principles and practice, largely a study of debates rather than a study of permanently fixed ideas, will not always produce engagement. But it is perhaps as likely to do so as direct exhortation. In any case, the success of civic education is measured not by the number of voters or jurors turned out but by the preparation of citizens for the work of self-governance.

Ferguson would likely object that the high-stakes questions of principles and practice I propose that we teach are not the kinds of questions that are typically implicated at the local level. Lofty discussions of the Federalist-Antifederalist debate or of constitutional controversies are unlikely to get students excited about appearing at a board of adjustment meeting to talk zoning. I agree with Ferguson that even in our political science departments we neglect state and local politics, and could do much more in and outside the curriculum to direct student attention to them.

But while such direct attention to the local is desirable, the importance of local self-government is rooted in the importance of self-government altogether. Interesting students in self-government, even at the local level, therefore depends on teaching the American experiment, not to preach good citizenship, but to foster a reflection that is our best chance of cultivating good citizens.

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