Like most Americans of my generation – born in 1973 – I learned about civics from television. On Saturday mornings, our diet of cartoons was regularly interrupted for Schoolhouse Rock, three-minute animated musical lessons on science, grammar and the workings of government. I know that a bill can die in committee before coming to the House for a vote because I can still sing “I’m Just a Bill”, an incurable earworm and a pretty thorough overview of America’s federal legislative process. We don’t teach civics this way anymore and that’s probably a good thing. Today’s Schoolhouse Rock would have to explain why part of Congress shut down the US government in a tantrum over a law they didn’t like, which is hard to accomplish in three stanzas, and worse, “intransigence” doesn’t rhyme with anything.
It’s hard to teach civics in three-minute snippets because the way we participate in civic life is changing shape – and changing very quickly. The vision of participatory citizenship that I grew up with – read a newspaper, vote in elections and if you’re really incensed, write to your congressional representative – is utterly unpersuasive and unappealing to the students I teach. Digital natives, born and raised in an atmosphere of interactivity, they are acutely aware of how insensitive most governments are to participation and how little meaningful interaction they can expect from their elected representatives and other government officials.
This distaste for participation in dysfunctional political systems is easily misread as apathy, leading legislators and educators to declare “a crisis in civics” as young people participate in elections at a much lower rate than their parents. But that misses a key shift: digital natives are participating in civic life in ways where they feel they can have an impact and these points of impact are often outside government.