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Living On the Real World, With William H. Hooke - Earthlings, Your Host Planet Would Like a Word

  • By William H. Hooke
  • Jan 15, 2024

William H. Hooke: former director of the AMS Policy Program

“Gravity: it isn’t just a good idea. It’s the law.”
—Adam Savage

“Civilization exists by geologic consent, subject to change without notice.”
—Will Durant

And that word is—wait for it—Geocivics.

With apologies, today’s continuation of the recent LOTRW focus on K–12 education begins with more than the usual amount of background.

Start with a definition. Wikipedia provides this articulation:
“Civics is the study of the rights and obligations of citizens in society. The term derives from the Latin word civicus, meaning ‘relating to a citizen.’ The term relates to behavior affecting other citizens, particularly in the context of urban development.” 

Civics has been with us a long time. That same Wikipedia source provides this quote, dating back to ancient Sparta and ascribed to Archidamus II (died 427/6 BC, one of the city-state’s kings):

And we are wise, because we are educated with too little learning to despise the laws, and with too severe a self-control to disobey them, and are brought up not to be too knowing in useless matters—such as the knowledge which can give a specious criticism of an enemy’s plans in theory, but fails to assail them with equal success in practice—but are taught to consider that the schemes of our enemies are not dissimilar to our own, and that the freaks of chance are not determinable by calculation. In practice we always base our preparations against an enemy on the assumption that his plans are good; indeed, it is right to rest our hopes not on a belief in his blunders, but on the soundness of our provisions. Nor ought we to believe that there is much difference between man and man, but to think that the superiority lies with him who is reared in the severest school.

And still focuses minds today. A few years ago, Rebecca Winthrop of Brookings provided an insightful articulation of the worsening state of and the need for civics education in twenty-first-century schools. To whet your appetite for her fuller analysis, here’s material from her executive summary:

Americans’ participation in civic life is essential to sustaining our democratic form of government. Without it, a government of the people, by the people, and for the people will not last. Of increasing concern to many is the declining levels of civic engagement across the country, a trend that started several decades ago. Today, we see evidence of this in the limited civic knowledge of the American public, 1 in 4 of whom, according to a 2016 survey led by Annenberg Public Policy Center, are unable to name the three branches of government. It is not only knowledge about how the government works that is lacking—confidence in our leadership is also extremely low. According to the Pew Research Center, which tracks public trust in government, as of March 2019, only an unnerving 17 percent trust the government in Washington to do the right thing. We also see this lack of engagement in civic behaviors, with Americans’ reduced participation in community organizations and lackluster participation in elections, especially among young voters.

Many reasons undoubtedly contribute to this decline in civic engagement: from political dysfunction to an actively polarized media to the growing mobility of Americans and even the technological transformation of leisure, as posited by Robert D. Putnam. Of particular concern is the rise of what Matthew N. Atwell, John Bridgeland, and Peter Levine call “civic deserts,” namely places where there are few to no opportunities for people to “meet, discuss issues, or address problems.” They estimate that 60 percent of all rural youth live in civic deserts along with 30 percent of urban and suburban Americans. Given the decline of participation in religious organizations and unions, which a large proportion of Americans consistently engaged in over the course of the 20th century, it is clear that new forms of civic networks are needed in communities.

Winthrop goes on to make the case for the role of schools. 

A sample of her thinking:

As one of the few social institutions present in virtually every community across America, schools can and should play an important role in catalyzing increased civic engagement. They can do this by helping young people develop and practice the knowledge, beliefs, and behaviors needed to participate in civic life. Schools can also directly provide opportunities for civic engagement as a local institution that can connect young and old people alike across the community. To do this, civic learning needs to be part and parcel of the current movement across many schools in America to equip young people with 21st-century skills. To date however, civic education experts argue that civic learning is on the margins of young people’s school experience. The 2018 Brown Center Report on American Education examined the status of civic education and found that while reading and math scores have improved in recent years, there has not been the commensurate increase in eighth grade civics knowledge. While 42 states and the District of Columbia require at least one course related to civics, few states prioritize the range of strategies, such as service learning which is only included in the standards for 11 states, that is required for an effective civic education experience. The study also found that high school social studies teachers are some of the least supported teachers in schools and report teaching larger numbers of students and taking on more non-teaching responsibilities like coaching school sports than other teachers. Student experience reinforces this view that civic learning is not a central concern of schools. Seventy percent of 12th graders say they have never written a letter to give an opinion or solve a problem and 30 percent say they have never taken part in a debate—all important parts of a quality civic learning.

Which brings us to today’s main idea. In these writings, bracketing more than two millennia, we see civics defined as the study of the rights and obligations of citizens in society. In this view, society is the platform of interest. The rights (think life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, for example) and the obligations are considered in this context alone. Even with this constraint, the complexities are daunting—the subject of continuing examination, interpretation, and vigorous, even violent debate. Questions of ethics and morality quickly arise; considerations of so-called natural law (think, for example, the Golden Rule) and (for some) God’s law can come into play.

What’s missing? Explicit incorporation of a different set of natural laws. Truth is, civics is lived out on a finite planet: a planet with generous but limited natural resources; a planet featuring fierce extremes of flood and drought, earthquakes, volcanism, and more; and a planet that at the same time is proving troublingly fragile—easily and sometimes irrevocably damaged by societal actions and decisions, however well-intended. History provides examples of civilization decline resulting from societal failure to account for environmental realities. To list a few: Mesopotomia struggled to cope with the soil salination resulting from irrigation. Here in the United States, the Anasazi people and other contemporaneous cultures wilted under the pressures of the so-called Great Drought. Just as Covid has rocked today’s world, the Great Plague of Athens (40 B.C.) damaged Greek fortunes and changed the course of world history. Climate change and pandemics emphasize that the scale of today’s geocivics is truly global.

Citizens of ancient Sparta might be forgiven for overlooking the role of nature in human affairs, but not the societies of today. Perhaps the twenty-first-century preoccupation ought to be Geocivics—the study of the rights and obligations of citizens in society on a generous-but-finite, dangerous-but-fragile Earth.

Integrate the study of civics and the geosciences in public schools? Natural for educators to see this idea as cringeworthy. (Our communities are already upset with us, Bill. And these two topics are each controversial in and of themselves. Combine them? Yeah, right. What could possibly go wrong?)

But the Earth is emotionally detached, unmoved by any consideration of love, or hate, or rights, or responsibilities. Any beneficence or malfeasance of human beings the planet accepts without question. It doesn’t judge. In response, the planet simply does “what it’s gotta do.” It obeys laws of motion, conservation of energy, entropy imperatives and the like. No amount of human intervention can stay the drought or the flood, the cold spell or the heat wave. Yet civics can change the societal outcomes—reducing the death, injury, property loss, economic disruption, environmental degradation. And civics can accomplish this most effectively when it incorporates geoscience. Earth’s inexorable response to human actions and ability to dominate human affairs just might focus minds, shift attention from squabbling over abstractions to common search for coping strategies.

It is likely too much to expect that this sobering terrestrial context would dampen or civilize (there’s that root word again) the disagreements that polarize nations and peoples in any short term. But it would take the educational high ground: realism. It would put the emphasis on the needed societal actions. Over time, it might drive us to pay more attention to our sacred responsibilities to others and to our planetary habitation. It might renew interest in civics more broadly. By such means, it might improve the prospects of our children and grandchildren. Which brings to mind a closing quote:

“The goal of life is living in agreement with nature.”
—Zeno of Citium