Civic education is back, and not for the first time. In recent decades, policy makers, educators and democracy advocates have launched one initiative after another with promises to finally make American government relevant and compelling to students.
Mostly, these have failed. We've had commissions, studies, federal funding. We've had debates over whether kids should learn the three branches of government and the Bill of Rights, or learn how to mobilize for equity and social justice. Nothing, it seems, has worked. Adults and kids alike remain appallingly ignorant of the most basic facts about American democracy, from which rights the First Amendment protects to the three branches of government.
Part of the problem is that textbooks and curriculum materials tend to overemphasize things like the granular details of the War of 1812, while ignoring more compelling questions like: What is democracy? How can you make it work for you? Existing civic instruction also tends to focus almost exclusively on middle and upper schoolers. This misses a key window during elementary school, when kids are forming their views of what's fair, where they fit in and what it takes to get along with others.
Blades is co-founder of Living Room Conversations, which organizes gatherings designed to increase understanding and reveal common ground.
Thought experiment: What if all the leaders in Washington decided tomorrow that climate change was the No. 1 issue to address? Evidence suggests this would not be as helpful as many people think. Consider health care, a No. 1 issue for decades. How does the U.S. health care system stack up? It is the most expensive in the world per capita and it isn't even in the top 10 in terms of outcomes. The fact is, importance isn't the determining variable for achieving success. We need to be able to work together.
Weaving the fabric of our democracy locally and nationally is a massive challenge. The people behind Living Room Conversations are meeting that challenge by offering an open-source project that can be used by mobile users at the beach as easily as in a living room or library.
Sometimes we worry that our name may confuse people. Living Room Conversations aren't limited by location, geography or time zone. They are happening every day in churches, libraries, schools, book stores, city community centers and virtual conference spaces. These six-person, structured conversations are designed to be self-directed, easily accessible, and welcoming to a broad array of perspectives. The structure includes conversation agreements that support comfort and safety.