For seven years I taught a course called Management and Society at an east coast university. It was almost twenty years ago, but that’s beside the point. Most of my students were from technical fields, primarily engineering and medicine, seeking an MBA to further their career opportunities. I remember my dismay when my first class was met with blank stares. It’s hard to discuss management and society if one does not know anything about society, especially the one in which we live.
I took a quick survey. “When was the last time you took a course in civics, American history, or anything like that?” Some couldn’t remember. Most said in maybe the 9th or 10th grade. None had taken anything along those lines in college. They were technical people. If it couldn’t be framed as a mathematical formula, they weren’t interested. As a practical matter, most had a hard time writing a simple declarative sentence as well, but that’s another issue.
In a class of graduate students desiring an MBA, we had to start at the beginning. America is a republic, a representative democracy. There are different types of governments, even different types of democracies. This is how ours is different. There are three branches of government. They are defined by the Constitution. This is how we got our Constitution. And so it went.
I imagine they found it a bit embarrassing to discover they were young adult citizens, aspiring to business leadership, who were operating from a largely forgotten 9th grade education about what it means to be an American. To be sure, they were more interested in learning how to craft market strategies that would ensure a high rate of return on investment, but mine was a required course and they had to endure.
From then on, every semester started with a few days of basic 9th grade civics as preparation for everything that would follow.
I’ve learned that my budding corporate leaders were not unique. I am no longer surprised by people demanding their First or Second Amendment rights who have never read the Constitution. Many go on at length about what the founding fathers intended, but have never heard of the Federalist Papers. Defenders of a corporate free market don’t know that corporations were originally creatures of the state authorized, at least on paper, to do business benefiting the public good and the state itself. Regular voters admit that they never read the voter information booklet received in the mail, and don’t actually know much about the initiatives or referenda they vote on. In fact, they don’t know the difference between the two. And so it goes.
We need better civics education in our schools. We also need a way to provide remedial civics education for the adult population. How about requiring a basic civics test to get or renew a drivers license? No? I guess the DMV has enough image problems as it is. Well then, let the Luddites rule (no offense to the original Luddites).