Civic engagement and Knope

Social studies teachers are nerds. We love being nerds. We love watching tv programs that are nerdy. Yet we hold one of the greatest responsibilities in the education world- to teach our children civic engagement. Recent reports in the 2010s have indicated that many people feel disengaged from civic society. They feel left out. They feel like their voice is not heard. People feel government does not listen to the little guy and their issues. We have clearly had a miscommunication, or a huge failure to communicate.  Having taught senior year civics for almost five years, and overseen a large urban school district program in civics, as well as worked at the NYS education department in implementing state civics education I can assure you. In the C3 and NYS standards civics is there. It may be strangled as our students in senior year civics are asked to write a long policy analysis paper for Participation in Government. These senior year students, many of whom are 17 or 18, are not sure how this class relates to basics like voter registration, or paying taxes, or registering for selective service. Many others are confused about how to interact with the local courts system if they are ticketed for speeding. What is worse, we never teach the basics of how to obtain a marriage licence, or where to go if you have an issue with a building permit, or how to buy a house. We don’t discuss what to do if there is an animal loose- or how to obtain a dog licence for a pet. We never discuss what local resources are available for our residents and citizens to use.  As a school- we assume that the parents have done that. We have in an epic and complete way failed our students to the point that many only feel comfortable interacting online and in virtual reality.

Thankfully, some of our political leaders are creating a movement and an excitement in young voters. President Obama, and candidate Jill Stein and candidate Bernie Sanders have led mass engagements in politics and civics by young people. From their slogans to their platforms, to their social medial and communication savvy, these leaders are asking our students to engage and to make the world better. Its almost as if JFK’s call for the Peace Corps and Americorps has found another generation that wants to go good for the sake of doing good. Some of this civic mindedness is finding its way into Teach for American. While maybe not the best way to engage in teaching, which is a career, the TFAs are recruited from our best and brightest and serve in some of the most demanding schools. Not always successful, these TFAers have something that regular educators are missing: Social Capitol. See, I went to school at a State school. I am very proud of that education. I have not, nor have any of my classmates from high school made enough money or become powerful enough to really make a significant difference outside of our own little worlds. The two most powerful members of my High School class are an Assistant Superintendent and a high school principal. Classes behind me have people who are small business owners, and doctors and lawyers- but no one who you read about in the Times or the Wall Street Journal. Now compare that to TFAs. They have graduated from networked in schools. They know millionaires. They work with high finance and policy gurus. If they want to accomplish a task, they can. We can too, but they have elite folks at their disposal. We need to do things via grassroots, hard work, luck and a lotto win.

This brings me to Knope, or Leslie Knope, Amy Pohler’s character on Parks and Recreation. Leslie was an idealist, a public servant who wanted to do good work. Her seven season arc takes her from the role as Deputy Director of Pawnee, Indiana’s parks and recreation department to a high level job in national politics. The stories, while trite, or conflated, or  farcical, do explain a number of civic engagement concepts in a way that is not dry or boring.

What does Leslie try to do? She wants to build a park. Leslie wants to create a beautiful area for the citizens of her city. Over the space of the series, you see Leslie working with different characters in her office who help, oppose, or frustrate her. She deals with state intervention and government shut down. She deals with a public that does not always know what is good for it. At public hearings,  her ideas are opposed by people for reasons which have nothing to do with creating a better place. When Leslie decides to run for office, the campaign deals with money, manipulation, and public distrust. Once elected to City council, she must work with people who are out to harm her efforts. Leslie deals with a  log rolling incident where her “Fun in the Sun” legislation is held up to allow a councilman to get her office. When she tries to impose a sugar tax, the community hates her because they want their food- and the business world attacks and threatens to destroy her. A group demand her recall and are successful, even after she saves two cities. The groups call her a nag and a nanny.

It is interesting to see this humorous comedy have so many situations which allow social studies teachers to look at and teach civics in depth. It shows the difficulties faced by women in a world with many male tendencies. The show examines small town life from a less than flattering angle. It does provide many powerful female characters. It allows a grander discussion in its last season about corporate responsibility, the role of big data in our lives, and how we as citizens look to technology and trend makers for silly reasons.  This show can help teachers discuss civic, economic, political and other current issues in a funny but engaging way. Look into the show, and see what you think.

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