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Bad bill no cure for constitutional apathy

Posted: March 9, 2011 - 6:31am

Fortunately for Alaska’s history teachers and students, the American Constitutionalism History Literacy Act is not likely to become law. It may not even reach the House floor for a vote. However, Rep. Wes Keller, R-Wasilla, the sole sponsor of House Bill 5, isn’t mistaken by drawing attention to the continuing decline of civic sensibility is our society. The problem is his solution ignores the contradictory forces luring people away from participation in community affairs.

Keller’s argument for this bill starts in melodramatic fashion. He suggests that America is heading toward the unthinkable tragedy of repeating the kind of human oppression that existed before our country’s birth. His remedy for this frightening prospect is to empower “students to make rational, evidence-based decisions regarding their civic judgments, rights, and duties.” How? By giving them a curriculum of American constitutionalism and adding its lessons to the competency examination they must pass to receive a high school diploma.

If this legislation was coming out of Congress, Keller would be among the crowd condemning it as big government overreach. Indeed, much of the constitutional conservative crowd wants to completely abolish the U.S. Department of Education. They believe educational standards should be established at the local level.

But how would this bill appear to history teachers across Alaska? Would they welcome it as an insightful opportunity or see it as an intrusion into their classroom by the heavy hand of state government?

If it’s true that community leaders are better suited to understand the educational needs of our youth, then shouldn’t we be making a similar case for civics in general? In other words, would students find more civic value from learning about local issues or from the abstract sentiments of history?

I don’t doubt that the general concept Keller is prescribing will resonate with some students. But it’s a mistake to assume those same students won’t develop a strong attachment to civics without studying his proposed curricula. Those values may have already been planted by observing their parents’ participation in community affairs or from their own active involvement in any number of youth civic organizations.

On the other side of the spectrum are students whose adult role models aren’t interested in civics at all. Unfortunately, this attitude is pervasive among adults in our society. It’s the entire basis of Keller’s concerns. But before we can devise a solution we have to determine the source of the trouble. Where Keller seems to be finding fault with the history curricula in schools, I’m suggesting we look at the forces luring us into apathetic slumber.

Doesn’t the commercialization of society oppose the virtues of civic engagement? Whether it’s cars, the latest fashion or film, or the tantalizing image of prepared food, almost all commercial advertising appeals to nothing more than the fulfillment of personal desires.

What happens when we imagine history can only be written by the rich and famous? It may be natural to be fascinated by national political figures, actors on the big screen, and professional athletes. But chasing the lives of celebrities via tabloid-like news stories inhibits our vision of people closer to home who make significant contributions to our lives.

Modern technology has increased the noise of such distractions, especially for our youth who has no memory of a quieter past. Add in social media like Twitter and Facebook and it’s clear we’re all being drawn away from the work required to develop intimate bonds with our friends and neighbors.

Requiring intensive study of America’s birthing documents isn’t going to reverse these trends. Nor can they be the sole source for solving the pervasive apathy that Keller describes. Abstract connections to the past are simply no substitute for experienced based understanding of the present world we occupy. And all true experience is local and can’t be imposed upon us by government mandates.

Modernity will remain a curse opposing civic responsibility unless we face the shadowy side of commercialism, fame and the ease with they bring immediate gratification. That’s not to say it’s all bad. But if we allow them to lead us away from the profound truths of our time, then we’re apt to be satisfied grazing in the pasture of psychic comfort.

• Moniak is a Juneau resident.

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