A long overdue civics lesson
Remember those Jay Leno “person-in-the-street” interviews? The ones where the former host of the Tonight Show would ask very basic topical questions like “Who is the vice president of the United States?” The interviewee captured on camera typically gave a painful blank stare before admitting that he or she just didn’t know. Typically, the queries were so basic that it made me wonder whether civics is being taught on any level these days.
Now granted, even though the vice president is one heartbeat away from becoming the commander in chief, whoever fills that role automatically has an identity problem. And granted, for the sake of pure, cringeworthy entertainment, Leno and his staff probably selected the most appallingly challenged individuals for the presentation.
But a citizen, especially a voter, should know the “veep” regardless of whether that individual basically exists to attend funerals, break 50-50 tie votes in the U.S. Senate, or stand woodenly behind the real driver of the national narrative while he (or someday she) delivers the State of the Union address.
That’s why I was heartened to hear the recent announcement about the Wisconsin Civics Games, an effort by the Wisconsin Newspaper Association Foundation to address a decline in civic education and engagement. Initially, the games will engage school students about Wisconsin civics and branch out from there.
Teams can include up to four students, and the inaugural competition will kick off with local “bowls” during the week of Jan. 10, 2019. Winning teams from participating schools will advance to regional competitions, which will be held at University of Wisconsin campuses the week of Feb. 2, 2019.
There is no fee for a school to take part, and the regional competitions will have the same boundaries created by the Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association. In addition, the contest is open to public schools, private schools, and home-schooled children.
The Wisconsin Civics Games will culminate in a statewide championship on Feb. 23, 2019, at the State Capitol in Madison. The two highest scoring teams from seven regions will compete in the finals.
Each team that signs up to participate will be mailed a “teacher toolkit” to help students prepare, and additional resources to help students get ready for the Civics Games are available online at wisconsincivicsgames.com. Teams interested in participating should sign up online by Nov. 5.
Newspapers across the state will sponsor local teams and, beginning Oct. 15, they will highlight stories that provide real-life, local examples of how the political process works and how it affects them.
What does this have to do with business? Given the way government can impact the cost of doing business, establish the regulatory rules framework under which businesses operate, and provide important services, it’s important for future executives and rank-and-file employees to learn how government works at all levels.
The prime sponsor, the Wisconsin Newspaper Association Foundation, is as its name suggests: a not-for-profit organization to support programs that foster excellence in journalism. The Foundation, created in 1980, also exists to engage current and future newspaper leaders and invest in Wisconsin communities. At this time, I can think of no better foundational investment than a healthy knowledge and respect for the kind of civic engagement that produces an informed citizenry.
Our friend Eve Galanter, president of Galanter Public Affairs Consulting, a WNA Foundation board member, and a former elected official who served for nearly a decade on the Madison City Council, wants students to feel as passionate about public service as she does. Galanter, who also served as former U.S. Senator Herb Kohl’s district director, believes the concept of team competition will appeal to students and encourage the next generation to help restore civic and civil engagement.
Part of Galanter’s motivation is the lack of civics education in our schools. “It’s not mandated and we’re not suggesting that it has to be, but I believe the lack of full understanding of the whole public policy process leads to a loss of civic engagement and perhaps reduces the interest in public service, as well,” she states. “Right now, it’s not just civic engagement but civil engagement.”
Citing a 2016 Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance survey that found in a recent election, 56 percent of communities had no more than one candidate for each village, town, or city board or council seat, she laments that public service is not at the top of people’s list in terms of career pursuits.
“It was a concern so serious that in some small towns and villages, they had to reconfigure their governing structure and merge with a nearby village or town because they could not fill their seats,” she notes.
Noting that newspapers are critical to the civic life of a community, WNA Executive Director Beth Bennett says it’s their role to inform the public and encourage a dialogue. That’s harder to do without competitive political races, so WNA hopes the Civics Games will encourage young people across Wisconsin to become engaged with government on a local and statewide level.
In this inaugural year, local newspapers are sponsoring the teams, but organizers eventually may reach out to local businesses to sponsor teams. Until then, business operators are free to encourage their own children or their customer’s children to get their high schools to register for the games.
“To be honest, I had never thought about reaching out to local businesses to see if they would sponsor teams,” Bennett says, “but that could be a direction that we would want to go. The goal is for this to be an annual event. Based on the response we’ve gotten from anyone we’ve approached, and Eve is out talking to lots of folks, the enthusiasm is just amazing for this. People want to be attached to it. They want to put their names to it.”
Could this contest address the need for more civility than we’ve seen lately in our public discourse? Yes, as a byproduct, Galanter notes. “To the extent that people increase their civic engagement and can speak with one another knowledgeably about an issue, I do believe it encourages civil engagement,” she states. “It’s not something you teach per se, but it is a logical outcome of being more knowledgeable and being able to discuss and disagree on an issue rather than being disagreeable with the person with whom you’re having a conversation.”
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