November 1, 2012

How to do Civics, America and Economic Development Right

Teaching America: The Case for Civic Education

Edited by David Feith. Rowman and Littlefield Education. 2011.

Does anyone remember what they learned in civics class? Not that old bromide about being a good citizen, but an actual fact, or a lesson that stood out. Do you even remember what is in the Bill of Rights? (Polls show virtually no one does). Civics is mainly a blur of boring social studies textbooks with pictures of dead, white men in powdered wigs. Somewhere along the line we picked up that we have a responsibility to the state and the state has a responsibility to us, what the philosopher Thomas Hobbes called the “social contract.” But was that in civics class?

Apparently the education establishment can’t remember either. Nowadays, civics has been collapsed into social studies, which covers history, culture, humanities, sociology, geography, economics, religion and anthropology, to name a few. In short, social studies is the catch-all for anything that’s not the 3Rs.

And that is precisely the problem the high-profile contributors to this book of essays would like to rectify. We are becoming a nation of civic illiterates. Students don’t know what makes America America. They don’t know their rights or their responsibilities. Their disengagement and disillusionment with government and institutions begins early, because they are no longer taught what it means to be a citizen of the United States.

Writers as diverse as retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, U.S. Sen. Bob Graham and commentator Juan Williams declare their concerns to this case for civic education. Without an educated and informed citizenry, democracy falls apart.

The book is bogged down with a lot of footnotes and some of the deadly writing that made our eyes glaze over in the fifth grade, and still does. “Republicanism entails a commonality principle pointing to the public (or common) good; liberalism entails an individuality principle …” Huh? But it is also full of great ideas for what to do, how to make civics an interesting, vital part of education and thereby foster “virtuous cycles of civic engagement, academic and economic success, and social consciousness in American public schools.”

Several of the contributors have founded charter schools and achieved remarkable success in involving even the most jaded students in civic life. The key to this, they say, is to get students out of the classroom, take them to polling stations on Election Day, on field trips to all sorts of government bodies. Set up debates and have them testify on behalf of better schools. Have students register voters and hold mock elections. Most importantly, they say, civics must not be dumbed down or rendered dull.

Seth Andrew, founder of four Democracy Prep Charter Schools in New York City’s Harlem neighborhood, one of them the top performing middle school in the city, says that to make civics exciting and meaningful, teachers must “embrace controversy, engage with the street, encourage debate, protest loud and proud and facilitate authentic civic opportunities whenever possible.” Sounds like democracy in action—and no civics class I ever took.


by Peter H. Diamandis and Steven Kotler. Free Press. 2012.

Behind the Beautiful Forevers is a book about poverty in India. Non-fiction, but using all the compelling storytelling techniques of a novel, it draws you into the reality of life in a slum, scraping out a living by recycling toxic materials, squatting on a median amid whirling traffic to beg. The book is singularly well-written and completely heartbreaking. But, the Abundance authors look at it another way. The “bottom billion,” those 4 billion people who live on less than $2 a day, are “a viable economic market,” they say, with more than $13 trillion in purchasing power parity. One of the problems in defining poverty is context. The poverty level in the United States is $10,400 a year. But a villager in Somalia earning that amount would be incredibly wealthy. The only workable definition of poverty then is based on parity, the ability to buy what you need where you live.

Abundance, a remarkable book in its own right, argues that scarcity and abundance are as much a function of context as of fact. If I pick all the oranges I can reach off a tree, oranges become scarce. Technology in the form of a ladder is what enables me to get to the abundance that was just beyond my grasp. That, the book insists, is the case with today’s world: Technology will enable us to raise the living standards of virtually everyone on the planet without exhausting our resources.

When was the last time you read anything with such a positive message?

Peter Diamandis is CEO of the X Prize Foundation and chairman of Singularity University, which he founded with 2009 MSCI speaker Ray Kurzweil. Steven Kotler is an author and journalist. Together, they lay out the confluence of circumstances that will allow us to avoid cutting the global pie into tinier and tinier pieces and instead “figure out how to make more pies.” The global transportation network was the first enabler of abundance for all. “The Internet, microfinance, and wireless communications technology” are what will catapult it into reality. Importantly, the books says, it is not any one of these alone, although each will have positive impacts, but the combination, “amplified by exponentially growing technologies” that will make “the once-unimaginable” possible.

By raising living standards, we reduce violence, civil unrest and the likelihood they will further infect the world; we decrease population growth and play on the strengths of an interconnected world. The book concludes that “solving problems anywhere, solves problems everywhere.” The authors freely admit that this sounds impossible, that their timetable of 25 years may seem “a little too far-fetched,” but the case they make is extremely convincing and certainly attractive in its prodigious possibilities.

The Betrayal of the American Dream

by Donald L. Barlett and James B. Steele. Public Affairs. 2012.

These two guys are—there’s only one term for it—pissed off. They are not just angry. They are resentful, impatient, hectoring and very tired of it all. This is by no means their first foray into wrath and, as the title says, a feeling of betrayal. They are the authors of the bestseller America: What Went Wrong? According to them, a lot went wrong and there is plenty of blame to go around.

One of the most/only refreshing things about this book is that it is neither an anti-Democratic nor an anti-Republican diatribe. Both sides did this to us—it’s very much an us-vs.-them book—and there is little hope of them undoing any of it, knowing how or even wanting to. Other than that single note of bipartisan blame-laying, this is one, long acid bath.