It is common today to hear educators and politicians decry how little the American people know about civics. More people could name the judges on American Idol than could name the members of the U.S. Supreme Court, I have heard it said. I myself cannot name a single Idol judge and have never seen the program. I don’t even know if it still on. Why? Because I don’t care. Likewise, people who do not know the nine Supreme Court Justices are not necessarily ill-educated. They don’t care.
Humans do not learn things well if they don’t care about them. Caring about something means that a person believes that that something will make a positive difference in how they think or feel or it will allow them to do something in the world that matters to them. Believing that knowing the nine Supreme Court judges’ names may not matter much is not irrational. With our current levels of inequality, evidence denial, corporate monopolies and control, gerrymandering of districts, media-circus-driven political campaigns, and toxic money in elections it is certainly plausible for “everyday” people to believe that the system has little to offer them other than misery.
Of course, if everyday people knew how much the current political system harmed them, the economy, their health, and our civic society, they might care more, but only if believed they could actually do anything about it. And, of course, a great many people do not believe this.
Civics (like other areas in our schools) is often treated as just a body of facts, but it should be, in actuality, a body of facts, tools, and ways of participating in society and solving problems. As such it should be a way to leverage power, participation, and change in civil society and the public sphere.
But we still come back to the core issue that even if we taught civics as participation and the co-construction of civil society by its citizens (and not just remembering facts about government) no one would care unless they felt that actions they could take would matter, would make a difference, would be meaningful. And why should they, if the deck is stacked, the game is rigged, the system is corrupt?
There is a wider issue here—one not just about civics, but about school in general: Since no one learns well unless they care and they care only when what they are supposed to learn can make a positive difference in their lives, why should any student care about anything in school? Answering that question for science, mathematics, and art is just as central for schooling as is answering it about civics, though answering it about civics is central to the very existence of a civil society, the foundation of any public-school system.
I do not myself have answer to these questions. I am not sure anyone has answers, at least not ones that are widely shared and, thus, the basis for concerted action. All the more reason then that these questions about caring and mattering need to be at the forefront of discussions of schools, school reform, teaching and learning, and genuine politics.