<< The Body Politic

Learning by doing

Friday, February 10th, 2012

In this morning’s edition of the Hoover Institution’s Defining Ideas, Russell Muirhead argues that one reason that Americans’ civic knowledge is so poor is because they are not being called upon to act as citizens–and therefore they have no reason to gain and use the knowledge required to be an active citizen.

He writes:

The sorry state of civic knowledge tells us something about the meaning of citizenship in contemporary America. Knowledge is almost always connected with action: we learn by doing, and we learn for the sake of doing. By contrast, the kind of factual knowledge tested in surveys is memorized propositional knowledge, disconnected from the activities of both citizenship and daily life. In the course of ordinary events, citizens are not called upon to name the three branches of government, or the five liberties guaranteed by the First Amendment.

What citizens are asked to do, he notes, is to vote–and not much else. For most Americans, the act of voting is the one thing that being a good citizen requires. And as long as this is the case, “it is not easy to be a good citizen when there is not much for citizens to do, and not much for them to see.”

One solution to solving our civic knowledge problem, then, is to ask more of citizens–and the civic knowledge required for active citizenship will come naturally: “in America’s youth, […] politics was a craft people learned by doing. For legislators and local officials, it is still a craft.” For the everyday citizen, though, this learn-by-doing citizenship has largely disappeared. Is it any wonder our civic knowledge has declined as well?

Read the whole article here.