By Donna Griffin
Why I love teaching: This week I was the substitute in third grade.
I read the most awesome book to the class, “Patchwork Quilt” by Valerie Flournoy, with the theme of how families are joined by love, by action, and memories – I highly recommend it. Each class member then got to create their own square for a class quilt. As the children were showing me their drawings, one little girl told me she drew a picture of her lovey. “I have the real Baby Lovey in my backpack,” she said. “Wanna see her?” How could I refuse:) the real Baby Lovey was so well loved and brought her so much comfort. The twinge in my heart reminded me we all could use a Baby Lovey at times.
Which brings me to the next subject – social studies. We learned about Indiana government. And then I made my second “formal” candidate announcement. After eliciting correct responses as to who is in the Indiana General Assembly, I said, “I’m trying to be a state representative.”
“YOU are going to be a representative?” one child said, with a clearly confused look.
“I hope,” I added. “But I have to be elected first.”
“Wait,” – said another. “Does this mean you won’t be teaching us anymore?”
After assuring them that Indiana legislators are part-time, and I still would be able to teach, I pointed out that we had talked about presidents, governors, representatives, senators, judges, but not the most important people in our government.
But when I posed the question about the most important group in government, I got more than a few blank stares. Want to take a guess?
In just eight or nine years these third graders will be able to vote, to choose who will make decisions that affect the most important parts of their lives.
Far from perfect, our system of government is constantly evolving, but just like any other subject, our students need a fact-based foundation of our laws and institutions.
The “Kids Guide to the Indiana General Assembly” asked which of the following was a responsibility of citizenship:
1. Exercising the right to vote
2. Helping build strong communities
3. Sharing their ideas
4. Educating themselves about government
5. All of the above
If you guessed No. 5, you’re right. As I looked at the third graders, I told them they are only about 8 or 9 years away from being able to vote. Even students who are closer to or at voting age know more about petty politics than about the principles of democracy or the First Amendment which comprise the tools of citizenship.
We are the ONLY country that has a democracy with a representative system, one person, one vote, and the separation of powers. “No other country has a government like ours,” I told them. “It is a great system where citizens have power to choose but that also means they have responsibility.”
“With great power comes great responsibility,” one precocious student piped up.
They really do get it – trouble is so much information is swirling in their brains, and no one is giving them a path and the time to process and understand the consequences.
A new enlightenment
In my recent stints as a substitute teacher, I’ve encountered “Crash Course” videos. They are essentially digital “Cliff Notes” for all major subjects. In this one, the video went through more than 200 years of philosophy and sociological thought in one 16-minute video. The students may know facts and names but do they know the threads of those thoughts and how they influence our government today?
During the nearly 150 years of the enlightenment, politics, philosophy, science, and communications were radically reoriented. It was a time of war, of conflict, and above all questioning the way government, economy, religion, and education operates. This period in Europe was happening as our Founding Fathers created our Constitution and the democratic system of government we revere today.
But we all know have much has changed since the 1800s. As journalist Roy Peter Clark wrote, just in the last 25 years between 1996 and 2021 we saw the creation of an informational revolution as dramatic as the one caused by the printing press or the telegraph.
With the dramatic shifts in our country and the world during this period and before, I’d say we are in the midst of an American Enlightenment, a chance to look at fundamental changes in all of our institutions – government, economy, religion, and education from the common ground of our constitution, not the ever-shifting, polarization of politics.
We all need to remember how lucky we are, the uniqueness of our American democracy – born from war and oppression, pieced together with diverse views, cultures and backgrounds, and forever bound by the steely threads of freedom, justice, and hope that we call our Constitution.
Why talk about this now? Ask President Zelinsky and the Ukrainian citizens fighting for their lives and their democracy.
It’s an awesome responsibility to be an American citizen; we need to stop taking it for granted, as former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said. We need to use it as our common ground to move forward together.