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Making civics sexy?

Wednesday, April 18th, 2012

Eric Liu

“I propose to revive civics by making it squarely about the thing people are too often afraid to talk about in schools: power, and the ways it is won and wielded in a democracy.” So says former Clinton speechwriter and creator of the Guiding Lights Weekend conference on citizenship Eric Liu. After discussing the sorry state of civics education (“nearly two-thirds of our students today are below proficiency in national tests of civic knowledge”), Liu argues in The Atlantic that emphasizing to students “how to get what they want” will increase both civic participation and civic knowledge. He writes:

Imagine a curriculum that taught students how to be powerful–not only to feel empowered but to be fluent in the language of power and facile in its exercise.

It would teach them that civic power–the capacity to effect desired outcomes in common life–can derive from ideas, wealth, status, charisma, collective voice, and control of violence. It would show how power throughout our country’s history has been exercised and justified, for good and for ill.

A power civics curriculum would focus on a host of hard skills often ignored in procedural or fact-centered civics lessons:

How to see the underlying power dynamics beneath every public controversy.
How to read the power map of any community.
How to organize and mobilize people to achieve an objective.
How to force certain issues into public discussion.
How to challenge entrenched interests.
How to apply pressure on elected officials.

Fortunately, Liu also throws in a couple of sentences acknowledging that simply teaching kids how to get what they want might not be the best idea by itself; teaching civic virtue so that these soon-to-be-powerful citizens will want the right things also matters:

Could power civics be abused to create amoral tacticians who use their skills for evil? Sure. Such a risk, though, is inherent in the revelation of any knowledge, from microbiology to law. This just underscores the need for ethical context–for the why that comes with the how–and some civic character education.

Read the whole thing here.

AEI