Civics and Empathy could shape a more positive political dialogue

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Last month, this column concentrated on our country’s current atmosphere of uncertainty and turmoil. This piece will explore two positive steps we might take to make our national political climate more thoughtful, positive, and protective of the values we have known and practiced in the past. These ideas are not new; they were noticed and implemented several decades ago but more recently have been ignored or forgotten.

The first of these ideas is to resurrect the teaching in our schools of “Civics,  the branch of political science that deals with civic affairs and the duties and rights of citizenship.” It is likely that those who haven’t had the opportunity to study civics in school may not realize that citizenship in the United States or other democratic nations involves both duties and rights, and it is important to understand these more clearly.

As citizens, one of our most important duties is to vote. This means paying careful attention to the candidates running for office, whether at the local level for city council or mayor; at the state level for governor or state senators and representatives; or at the national level for senators and representatives in Congress and for President.

We should take this duty seriously as there is much at stake. For example, the president represents our nation in the world. This person also appoints members of the Cabinet such as the Secretaries of State, Defense, and Education, and we depend on the president to select highly qualified persons for these positions who will serve with intelligence, honor, and respect, and these Cabinet members owe it to the country to do so.

A democratic government like ours is a participatory endeavor, and we have to actively engage by paying attention, participating, and respectfully but insistently making our voices heard on important issues that face the nation. A democracy is a form of government that also depends on a free press that will respectfully but insistently seek answers on matters affecting us citizens and report them carefully and truthfully through various media.

A democratic form of government also requires an informed and educated electorate that will access the media. The press and the electorate can work in tandem to make certain that we receive truthful and accurate information from the government as well as its information on ongoing processes such as Senate or House hearings or deliberations. Requiring civics classes to be a part of the high school curricula will go a long way toward creating a more educated citizenry.

On July 9, Global Public Square, a CNN Sunday morning program coincidentally discussed the importance of teaching civics in our schools. It mentioned the test given to immigrants applying for American citizenship; it  consists of 10 questions on America’s history and its governmental process; in order to pass, the applicant must correctly answer at least six. Two multiple choice questions from the test were aired on this program: How many voting representatives are there in the House of Representatives? The choices were 376, 400, 435, or 538. The other question was what territory did the U.S. buy from France in 1803? The choices were Florida, Louisiana, Maine, or Washington. The correct answers are at the end of this piece.

According to Gary Saul Morson, the Dumas Professor of Arts and Humanities at Northwestern University, another way we might turn our current political discourse in a more civil direction is to read and discover what great works of literature can teach us. Morson writes that literature and politics are more relevant to each other than we might think. Reading a great book can broaden our horizons because it often encourages us to consider ideas and perspectives different from our own. For instance, Professor Morson suggests that we can relate to a character like Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina not because we, like Anna, are Russian socialites in a complicated love triangle as she was. but because we are fellow human beings and therefore share many of the same thoughts and emotions even though we inhabit a different time, social class, or culture. Morson believes that reading great books can teach us empathy because when we are able to see how an intelligent, decent person might have a different view from ours because of his or her own unique experience, we are more able to see some merit in that viewpoint. It is then that we can more easily create the possibility of civil democratic forums in which to discuss ideas and solutions. (Weinberg, Northwestern University, Vol. 5, No.1, p.17)

Laurie Zoloth, another Northwestern University professor, suggests that we shouldn’t be afraid of disagreement — even about critically important things. She believes that the better goal is for us to develop clear, articulate arguments, and to find a way to use the best of these arguments to shape our governmental policies.

The suggestions of Morson and Zoloth powerfully argue for a good education so that we citizens can help our government leaders create a more enlightened, peaceable, and empathetic society in which we can thrive and better understand and communicate with one another.

(The answers are 1) 435 and 2) Louisiana.)

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