Former University of Chicago president Robert Maynard Hutchins famously remarked that "the death of democracy is not likely to be an assassination from ambush" but rather "a slow extinction from apathy, indifference, and undernourishment."
The current hype surrounding the 2008 presidential contest makes American democracy seem healthy. But the superficial glitz of the campaign only provides empty calories. At a much deeper level, basic citizenship — our personal commitment to engaging the democratic process — is starving for sustenance.
The numbers tell the story. In the most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress in Civics (2006), 70 percent of U.S. eighth-graders could not identify why the Declaration of Independence was written. Seventy-seven percent of high school seniors tested could not describe two methods a citizen might use to change the law.
Florida also receives failing marks. In 2005, a statewide Florida Bar survey revealed that more than 40 percent of Florida citizens could not correctly identify the three branches of government. This lack of knowledge has metastasized into lack of action. Among the 50 states, Florida was 39th in average voter turnout in the 2004 general election. We are a woeful 49th in volunteerism.
The precarious position of American citizenship has many fathers:
• In an era when newspaper, television and radio station ownership is increasingly concentrated in the hands of a few, national news has crowded out the local stories most likely to stimulate civic activism. While partisan battles in faraway Washington rarely inspire anything but cynicism, a school board's decision to change graduation requirements or individual school boundaries can profoundly affect your children's lives. But try finding coverage of that issue on your local evening television news.
• Once upon a time, major political parties were eager to expand their reach. Today's parties often seem more obsessed with energizing their "base." Unfortunately, the messages that motivate base voters can alienate unaffiliated citizens whose participation would expand the electorate and strengthen democracy.
• In 1819, Thomas Jefferson declared that a primary purpose of education was to help Americans understand and exercise their rights and duties as citizens. For the better part of the next 150 years, schools fulfilled this mission. But then, the far right and far left each complained that civics instruction was biased against them. The two sides concurred on a solution — abolish civics from the curriculum — which they largely implemented.
• Academic subjects not tested are not taught and certainly not learned. In Florida, civics, history and other disciplines suffer because we do not include them in the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test. But the problem is national in scope.
• In order to keep accreditation, colleges and universities are required to declare their institutional objectives. Nearly 75 percent list better citizenship as a goal, but many produce large numbers of graduates who never took a collegiate civics course.
When I left the U.S. Senate in 2005, I resolved to spend the rest of my public service career helping citizens reconnect with democracy. This week, the University of Florida will give that mission a home: the immodestly named Bob Graham Center for Public Service.
The Graham Center will work to reinvigorate citizenship in several ways. First, we will support the Legislature's wise decision to mandate civics education in middle schools. Thanks to a generous grant from the Helios Foundation, the Florida Joint Center for Citizenship — a partnership between our center and the University of Central Florida's Lou Frey Institute of Politics and Government — will train middle school teachers to mold active citizens.
Second, we will directly engage University of Florida undergraduates through our certificate program in public and civic leadership. In the classroom, these students will study ethics, communications, economics and history. They will also see civics in action through public service internships and other real-world learning experiences. We hope that the end result is a skilled and motivated group of young Floridians willing to dedicate at least part of their lives to public service.
Third, the Graham Center will seek to elevate public dialogue by hosting lectures and debates on issues important to Florida, America and the world. The first of these exchanges will take place on Thursday, with U.S. Sens. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., and Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., discussing the challenges that face our next president.
Former NBC News anchor Tom Brokaw has chronicled the "Greatest Generation" of Americans who overcame the Great Depression and defeated tyranny in World War II. As Brokaw has observed, what best defined that generation was its commitment to citizenship. When these Americans returned from war, "they re-enlisted as citizens and set out to serve their country in new ways, with political differences but always with the common goal of doing what's best for the nation and all the people."
In 2008, our nation must commit to the goal of enlisting a new generation of Americans who embrace the responsibilities of citizenship. Together, we can save democracy from the apathy and indifference that would kill it.
Bob Graham was Florida's governor from 1979 to 1987 and a U.S. senator from 1987 to 2005. He is the author of Intelligence Matters and an upcoming book to help citizens engage the democratic process.