Teaching our kids about open government

I read an article today about how Florida is launching a new test for middle schoolers to prove that they know as much about how their government works as they do about “Snooki & Jwoww.”

It’s no easy task, even without the fake tans and f-bombs. But, at least when you’re talking about government, you can talk about concrete matters like structure and process. These are the three branches of government. This is what federalism is. This is how a bill gets passed. Here are the critieria for runnning for president. This is the difference between representative democracy and direct democracy.

Kids can grasp (or at least memorize) these basic facts without having to understand the sometimes seamy underside, the nuances or the vulnerabilities of any of them. They don’t have to embrace an ideology to learn the facts. They don’t have to really comprehend why it matters to them personally. So, we can imprint facts, but we can’t instill in them a passion for why our system matters.

Now, imagine the challenge we have at VCOG. We’ve talked for years about reaching out to young people to talk to them about open government. But we can never get past the question of how.

How do you teach an abstract?

How do you make pre-teens or teenagers understand why open government is important when many of us can’t agree on what open government means? Though there is universal lip service paid to the concept of open government, depending on whose ox is being gored, there is no similar agreement on the specific application of open government. It’s the old, “I believe in open government, but . . . . “

One woman’s open government is another woman’s invasion of privacy. One man’s open government is another man’s threat to national security. And so on.

How do we make students understand why they need to be able to see meetings and have access to records when many adults don’t understand it themselves, or don’t care even if they do? And I don’t mean to insult anyone’s intelligence or integrity. It’s just that over the years what I’ve seen is people with busy lives just don’t have time to engage in the process unless or until something begins to directly impact them.

When that new bypass may run right next to their neighborhood, when a new school district is proposed, when their mother-in-law’s nursing home gets a failing inspection grade, that’s when most people become open government advocates. They have a problem, they need information to deal with it and that’s when they seek records and attend meetings.

Even if a kid shares his parents’ concern about any of the above, because they are kids, they will leave it to their parents to take care of. These are grown-up problems and grown-up battles to fight. How many adolescents -- precisely because they are adolescents -- care about much of anything that doesn’t directly affect them?

Sometimes it’s even difficult to get college-aged students to care or understand. I think this is because a zealous advocacy of open government oftentimes requires a challenge to authority. Kids in K-12 don’t have the luxury of challenging authority, at least not if they still want three squares and a roof over their heads. Once in college, they are just trying on notions of true independence. Some of them just aren’t ready to accept that they have the right to know, that the official answer isn't necessarily the real answer, and that there are laws out there (FOIA) that exist to underscore both.

I don’t like to sound defeatist about this because I want these kids to care. I want them to understand. I want to teach them. But, again, how?

How would you reach America’s youth? How would you teach them -- and their parents -- about open government?

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