A Republic Madam - The Musical.
As Benjamin Franklin left the Pennsylvania State House after the final meeting of the Constitutional Convention on September 17, 1787, the wife of the mayor of Philadelphia asked him what the new American government would be. 81 year old Franklin turned frailly and slowly replied, “A republic, madam. If you can keep it.” For the past 20 plus years I’ve taught civics, government, and history knowing that the survival of our republic rests upon a well educated public. L’etat c’est us, after all! We gave ourselves a republic and we could take it away. It’s up to we the people to safeguard it. As Franklin said to the mayor’s wife, and Michael Jackson sang to our great nation, we’re the only ones who could keep this good thing goin’ baby!
A republic is a very good thing to keep, indeed.
Republican democracy (we added the democracy part later, Franklin and his ilk weren’t too keen on the government by the people part of democracy - in fact, they never once dropped the word democracy in the Constitution) is one of the best things to ever happen to we the people. Here’s the thing- not all of us are oligarchs, kleptocrats, monarchs, theocrats, tsarinas, or Sith Lords - but no matter how mean-spirited, shrill, or foul tempered we are - each and every one of us is people. So it’s good to have a government by the thing we all, by definition, are! And here’s a fun fact (like some facts aren’t fun), no democracy has ever gone to war against another. And, going out on a limb here, I don’t think war is something worth fighting for.
Our republic can’t keep itself.
There have always been forces opposed to the power of the people and there always will be, but make no mistake,today our republic is under attack. The Framers gave us a Constitution that kept the reins of power firmly in the hands of the few. In 1789 people meant only male, white, educated, land-owning, high falutin, and in some states, Protestant (there were no buggie bumper stickers proclaiming - I’m a Zen Buddhist and I vote!) But slowly, as our nation matured, our definition of people expanded to including blacks, women, Indians, 18, 19 and 20 year olds, and now, for a limited time only, Zen Buddhists. As we the people becomes even more inclusive, I believe power will flow to more and more of us. And we all lived happily ever after. No. This year’s election was a reversal of the trajectory of American history, and a narrowing of people and restriction of power, which is why, more than ever, in order to keep the republic we’ve got to educate and empower all the people in our classrooms (or preople, as I call my under 18 non-voting students)! There’s plenty of signs that our republic is slipping away: gerrymandering, minority rule, disagreement on basic facts, a growing disregard for the rule of law, and a creeping authoritarianism.
Teach like the Republic depends upon it.
A vital living democratic republic depends on a well educated, active, and highly caffeinated people. In 1992 I started teaching in inner-city Houston, dedicating myself to teaching the republic. I was up against a lot! The schools I taught in were underfunded, ill-equipped, and thoroughly demoralized, but even in the most affluent sectors of the republic, America was not overdosing on civic literacy: More Americans can name the Three Stooges than the three branches of government (though currently, I believe, there is some overlap - Larry, Moe, Executive Branch. Is that right?); four in ten Americans can not identify a single First Amendment right (or maybe they just didn’t know that they had the freedom to say them out loud!); and believe it or not, only 17% of Americans can even identify their own political ideology (“I don’t know, I’m definitely either conservative or liberal!”)! As the political saying goes, “half the people read the newspaper, and half the people vote. Let’s hope it’s the same half.” Sadly, that old maxim is already woefully optimistic and outdated. As of 2016, only about 2 in 10 Americans got their news from a print newspaper - half the number who got their news online. The 2017 version of the quote would be, “twenty percent of people read the newspaper, 50% of eligible voters vote in presidential elections, let’s hope it doesn’t get any hotter on this planet!” Teaching my students about the Three Stooges of government is just the start; education, of course, is about more than just knowing stuff. For the people to keep the republic we must teach this generation civic literacy so that they not only how government works, but also whether it works, for whom, why it works the way it does, what caused it to work/not that way, what the effects this are, how to tell fact from fiction, information from opinion, to be skeptical consumers of news and information, to understand cause and effect, to evaluate facts, and, in sum, to think critically and be a good citizen. Civic literacy is the backbone of democracy and essential to keeping our republic, and according to recent studies, it’s at an all time low. Today, after my 22 plus years in the classroom it looks like our republic is on life support, and I can’t help but think it’s time to teach harder and up our civil literacy game!
Here’s what I do about it. Teach for civic literacy.
A couple of years ago as rich visual data proliferated across the internet, I wondered why so few of these marvelous mind-expanding resources were filtering down to the my students. And when I did share charts and graphs in class, why were my perfectly intelligent students, so ill-equipped to process the this data? To build critical visual literacy, I decided to start every class with critical questions about curious, relevant, and engaging graphs, charts, maps, cartoons, and infographics about American government. Not only were my students exposed to rich social studies content, but they were building critical visual fluency - and enjoying it! Before long, students began to bring their own visual data into class and our daily visual bell ringer was expanded to include an action extension where student-citizens can practice the vital skills of keeping the republic. I dared to imagine how our entire republic would benefit from activating these same critical visual skills and civic participation.
What will you do keep the Republic?
in a democracy, people get the government they deserve. And as America slouches into civic illiteracy, it is no surprise that we’ve got a Stooge running our government. Join us online for our daily civic bell ringers, or even better, have your students create their own! How will you answer when a student asks what kind of government we have?