A lesson on civics

April 26, 2022

“We spend roughly $50 per student per year on STEM fields and 5 cents per student per year on civics.”

In writing these words, scholar Danielle Allen acknowledges the importance of STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics). “The United States needs science. It needs technological innovation, and it needs scientists to advise elected leaders,” she wrote, then adding: “But this is not all that the country needs.”

In building on that point, Allen cites the importance of understanding history, government, citizenship. Allen puts it this way: “The country also needs people who make judgment calls. At the end of the day, we have to rebuild our understanding of what judgment is as a practice, what judgment consists of, and how technical expertise advises judgment but shouldn’t replace it. The humanities are a set of disciplines that I think best teach synthetic understanding and that best teach people how to consider human goals, whether individual or collective.”

I learned about and from Allen recently on a webcast through the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University. Part of the discussion was about Allen’s new book, Democracy in the Time of Coronavirus, which is where the quotes mentioned here are taken.

It’s easy to see our weakness in civics. Just look around. I hadn’t seen it described in dollar terms like those cited by Allen. Her numbers underline the depth of the challenge, which begs to be addressed on multiple levels.

A somewhat related point raised by Allen is this question: Are we going to be OK together? Do we have the sense of community, of humanity, of common purpose to co-exist in a divided world? Are we willing to pursue smarter governance with an eye toward supermajorities rather than just wield power? Are we willing to broaden our vision, including learning from those with different backgrounds, those with different beliefs? Allen finds troubling signs. One example is the abandonment of the elderly and essential workers during the coronavirus (have we all heard if not said “oh, those people were about to die anyway).”

We can and should do better.

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