Teaching leadership: more things we missed

Looking back on whether or not the 1990s were really a missed opportunity, I have concluded that it’s difficult to say that such was more true of that period than of others.

Which doesn’t mean that reexamination offers no lessons. Among those which it suggests, to me, hollowness in our society’s political leadership lessons seems prominent.

In my late 30s, it seems like I’m engaged in a self-study course in political leadership theory and practice, covering a lot of material that should be basic but which I just have not encountered before. It seems also like I’m not alone in this.

Two pieces of personal context also suggest that there is indeed a hole in what our culture teaches: First, I actually paid attention to most of the curriculum throughout my years in school. Second, in this area I even showed interest; in high school I spent a week immersed in something called the National Young Leaders Conference.*

Yet looking back, I nonetheless reached my 30s with an understanding of how democracy works that can’t be called complete even in outline form. If this was the case even for me, is it any wonder that America’s politics seem to have broken down?

I have concluded that our society teaches a concept of civics involving such massive assumptions and omissions that it’s almost worse than nothing. In particular, the role of people seems to be taken largely for granted, which seems like a fundamental flaw if one understands what “democracy” actually means.

The prevailing “Schoolhouse Rock” concept of civics strikes me as not only oversimplification, but just plain misleading. So much is just wrongly assumed as given.

The biggest example is probably voting itself. We teach people that America holds elections, in which people cast votes, and—hold on, what if they don’t feel much like voting, which is in fact true as a general rule? Oops. Every subsequent lesson that rests on this foundation is suddenly dubious, even as a simplification.

Parties are barely even noticed. The basics of how campaigns work, and how astonishingly dependent on volunteer participation this activity also is, would probably come as news to most Americans. Which seems important when contests for elected office are an essential component of your system of governance.

The dissemination of some form of information is just assumed, at every step of prevailing minimalist civics education. That too is a problem when organized institutions dedicated to discovering and reporting information are a product of private market conditions which are potentially just a temporary accident.

I could go on at some length. But basically it seems like Americans are taught that democratic government is something that happens, like weather, rather than something which only exists if there is ongoing participation including from you. We shout at people “vote,” but obviously provide ineffective context for it to mean much to them.

I can’t say whether or not this has ever been different. I suspect that classroom instruction probably has not been. It may be that people could once assume, incorrectly, that “Schoolhouse Rock” civics instruction was nonetheless adequate because of other teaching, outside the classroom, the role of which was not appreciated and has been allowed to cease without anyone really noticing. That’s just conjecture.

I also can’t say what college political science curriculum teaches; I took no poli sci courses. It wouldn’t surprise me if even that is severely flawed, but at all events I conclude that owing to the nature of democracy, we cannot rely so heavily on specialists as in other areas of life.

Probably a lot of people are always going to be ignorant, foolish, indifferent etc. But for democracy to have any chance of functioning, it seems to require a big “middle management” of small-scale leaders. Campaign volunteers, precinct leaders, committee members, delegates, local party executives, etc.

If a relatively capable and interested person can go through 16 years of school, and follow the world of politics and government fairly avidly for 20+ years, and nearly reach age 40 before having any real idea that these activities even exist—that seems like a societal problem.

* I can’t tell if the National Young Leaders Conference of ~1995 still exists in some form.

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