“The practice of democracy is not passed down through the gene pool. It must be taught and learned anew by each generation of citizens.”
Justice Sandra Day O”Connor
Nearly four years ago I wrote this article. I was motivated to do so given what I felt to be the appalling level of civic ignorance displayed in my California classrooms. At the time, I was still teaching public policy and administration to graduate students both here and in Illinois. Let’s just leave it to say this was not an issue in Evanston.
At the start of all of the 50+ courses I had taught, I had asked students what had been their majors as undergraduates. I specifically inquired as to how many had majored in political science or at least had taken a course in government beyond the basic breadth requirement. The super majority had majored in business, finance, communications, urban planning or criminal justice. It was not unusual to have only two or three out of a class of 20+ students that had majored in political science. While directly opposite of the graduate cohorts of some 30 years ago, there was something even more eye awakening: Very few had actually taken ANY course in government as an undergrad. What happen to the basic requirement of understanding the constitution and the governmental structure of both the State of California and that of the United States? Aren’t you in this program to work in and around government? Shouldn’t you know something about it, especially the relationship between the governed and their government?
Now, this is not to say that the practical skill sets of their more applied educational backgrounds are not at the very core of their value to the institutions that they serve. As I have noted in previous writings, “The Why of Public Service” in particular, we in government are usually very good at describing what we do and how we do it? But the bigger question, the central question, of “Why” often gets overlooked. The perfunctory response is to contribute to the effective and cost-efficient application of governmental service delivery. True enough. It’s just easier to understand. But our responsibilities in particular, those of the professional governmental careerist, is much greater. It is to place value and become inherently knowledgeable in our collective civic culture and the participatory democratic needs of our unique republican form of government. This response is hardly perfunctory. It priortizes the necessity of citizen engagement. It requires an inclusive approach to governance that is more than a display of communication techniques or an immediate knee jerk political response to the rhetorical “Heat of the Moment.” Some 50 to 60 years ago, these lessons were at the forefront of our national conversation and certainly were at the center of thought in most political science programs. They need to be front and center again. Their value goes beyond just the balancing of the books. It will require a comprehensive and incremental assessment of ourselves not just as managers and technicians, but as public servants and members of the greater polity. Just ensuring that the trains run on time is just not enough.