Many young people today cannot name a Supreme Court Justice or identify their own Congressional Representative. Voter participation is lower in the U.S. than in any other Western Democracy. It was not always this way, and in the past Rhinelander made certain its young people were aware of their civic responsibilities. Historian Gary Entz has the story.
There are numerous reports in the news today about civil unrest in towns and cities across America. In some instances, it has escalated into violence. While the protests are unsettling, what is perhaps even more troubling are those who choose to do nothing at all. In the last presidential election estimates are that only about 58 percent of eligible voters cast a ballot. In the last midterm election, turnout was around 53 percent. Those numbers fall precipitously in local elections.
Many Americans choose to ignore the responsibilities that accompany citizenship in a democratic society. Some would lay the blame for this on the American educational system and say that our schools are not doing enough, but it really is more of what sociologists call a Free Rider issue. That is, some people want all the benefits of living in a democratic society but balk at accepting the accompanying responsibility for it. In truth, all fifty states require some civics instruction, and the state of Wisconsin requires students to pass a civics exam. The trouble with this is that textbooks and rote memorization are not enough. Classroom instruction must be reinforced with experience-based learning opportunities like community service, guided debates, critical discussion of current events, and simulations of the democratic process. Without this, only about one-quarter of American students leave high school with a basic proficiency in civics.
It was not always like this, and in the Northwoods the city of Rhinelander used to partner with the local Boy Scouts in a week of civic-based activities that culminated in a Civic Day where young people got first-hand experience with not only the workings of local government but also how important a well-functioning government is and the role ordinary citizens play in its operation.
Rhinelander’s Civic Day started in the mid-1930s when the economic hard times of the Great Depression made the importance of government in people’s lives abundantly clear. It lasted until the early 1950s. The citizenship training provided was thought of as character building for teenagers while giving them a stake in how their community functioned for the benefit of all.
When the actual Civic Day arrived, eight young people were chosen from the local scout troops to take on the roles of Rhinelander’s city leaders. The offices they assumed included that of City Manager, Chief of Police, Fire Chief, Health Officer, Sewage Disposal Engineer, Water Department Engineer, City Treasurer, and City Clerk. These were obviously one day ceremonial appointments, but they were also quite real. The boys were sworn in at 9:00 a.m. then spent the day dealing with the public and addressing any problems that might arise during the day.
The following day, after learning through first-hand experience the daily issues of running a city, the participants were required to attend a luncheon at the Oneida Hotel and present a public report on the work they did and their experience as public officials.
In our current state of unrest, we could learn a lesson from the past about civil discourse and teaching our youth the value of civic responsibility.