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Everything Old Is New Again

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By John Carroll
October 10, 2014

The October theme is tantalizing, because it presumes that “civics” went away and there should be a call in public administration to teach it in our programs for the next generation. According to the dictionary at www.merriam-webster.com, “civics” is “the study of the rights and duties of citizens and of how government works.” Are we to understand that in our schools the subject of civics is as dead as Latin? If so, is this a public administration issue alone or a wider one for our society?

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My son graduated this past year from high school and is now attending university. I recall that he was required to have at least 300 hours of documented community service before he could graduate. I also recall that he took several advanced placement (AP) classes in government, which counted as credit at the university. While he attended a private college preparatory school, the public high school nearest to me showed a graduation requirement for credits in social studies, including classes in United States history and government as well as service hours. I think we can infer this is fairly common in high schools throughout America.

Is this the same as civics? I would like to think so, but let’s go with the theme. In “refocusing” what we teach, should we do so with the intent to instill values that will lead to “great” citizens and leaders? How would we define “great” in this context? Would Microsoft founder Bill Gates, who donates billions of dollars to a host of causes, serve as an example? How about the unnamed volunteer who assists at a polling station, soup kitchen or senior center? Is that person no less “great” in his or her own way? Was either motivated by a civics lesson?

What should we teach, keeping in mind our definition of civics above? Are there rights beyond those given by law and the courts? This can be tricky philosophic ground to tread. What exactly are the duties of citizens and leaders—to vote, to be civil to one another, to be a part of a greater something, to give back, or a combination of all or none of the above? If, as a discipline, we were to agree on the subject matter for the civics lesson, what should our expectation be in teaching civics? Will we change behaviors? Will we create better or even greater citizens and leaders?

Is this whole notion of missing civics a perception or reality? Will tomorrow’s citizens and leaders be different, in this sense, from those today or yesterday? I cannot help but think of the song “Everything Old Is New Again” – hence the title to my piece. According to www.songfest.com, the 1974 song was written by Peter Allen and Carole Bayer Sager. I remember it from the great 1979 movie, “All That Jazz.”

We can say with a high degree of certainty that tomorrow’s citizens and leaders will be connected to the world as never before, thanks to technology, social media and the like. Will that make them different people? Are we simply recycling the notion of civics as our current positions as citizens and leaders? Was it really so different once upon a time?

We have seen incompetence and corruption in public service of late, in contravention to civics. The stories of misfeasance, malfeasance and nonfeasance from Veterans Affairs, the Internal Revenue Service and Secret Service are breathtaking. Despite 20 years of promoting accountability (GRPA, PART, etc.), and endless ethics courses, these things continue to happen. It is nothing new and it certainly not limited to the federal government.

Broward County (in Southeast Florida, where I live) is only one of our nation’s 3,100 or so counties. I hope that is not typical of the rest of them. In 2011, a statewide grand jury investigated the Broward School Board (all public schools in the county belong to one system, led by elected members) and recommended the Board be abolished due to rampant corruption and incompetence. It didn’t happen. There are many examples of public, civic minded, servants being removed or imprisoned throughout our nation’s history, at every level of government. Will refocusing civics lessons change these behaviors?

When I first started out in public service decades ago, the seasoned veterans at the time would lament about the low quality of rookies being churned out into the system (myself included). Were we really that unprepared and ill equipped to do our jobs back then, or did the seasoned veterans hear the same from their predecessors? Did we say the same things to the newbies later on? It is a cycle; what seemed new to us at the time, is just old being new again.

This takes me back to the notion of refocusing civics for the next generation. As one who served in public administration, civics was part of the daily routine. As one who now teaches public administration, I may not specifically call it “civics,” but I sprinkle the concepts into every class. The next great citizens and leaders will emerge as the others have before them, hopefully better informed about the world around them. Civics is also bigger than public administration. Perhaps it is not the lack of teaching civics, but the methodology for teaching. If we could turn “civics” into a multi-player, high graphic, action packed video game for the next generation – then something old would be new again!

Author: John J. Carroll, Ph.D., M.P.A., is an assistant professor for public administration, at the Huizenga School of Business & Entrepreneurship, Nova Southeastern University, in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Prior to joining academia, he served in the public sector for more than 30 years.

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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