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Life as Performance Art

By G.C. Stoppel
Each week I read publisher Mike Wilcox’s editorial, then go for a walk. Sometimes it is to cool down; other times to think over what he wrote and how it can be applied. The June 9 edition when he wrote about the need to teach civics classes in our schools was the latter.
My first civics lessons came in the sixth grade when, like every other student in Minnesota, we studied our state’s history. That meant field trips to the local history museum, projects, reading, class assignments and more.
As a reward, in late May we went to the capitol in St. Paul. Our teacher Mrs. Wilson suggested we put on our good clothes, ones we wore to church, because the capitol was a special place.
We walked up a long flight of stairs to go in the door and were stunned by the size and beauty of the building. Years later, when I saw Jimmy Stewart in the movie “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” walk in the U.S. capitol in awe and wonder, I understood what he felt.
We met our state senator and representative in their offices, sat in the senate gallery and had lunch with our state rep. in their dining hall. The highlight was when Gov. Anderson walked across the capitol to his office, spotted our group and detoured straight towards us to say hello and thanks for coming.
Six years later state education laws mandated a semester of civics. Our teacher Mr. Opheim spoke about the U.S. Constitution with reverence generally reserved for clergymen and women.
When I signed petition papers a few years later to join an old fraternal organization, I handed them to him. He explained its members stand shoulder to shoulder with President Washington and many worldleaders. Membership was a solemn responsibility.
He asked if I remembered how the Declaration of Independence and Constitution were created through ideas, compromise and negotiation. He noted they had one goal, to create a new nation, ideas and worked together to make it happen. He said I would find the same thing happening within the fraternity.
“Can you look me in the eye and say you will do your best to live that way?” Mr. Opheim asked me, concluding we don’t all have to agree but must work together for the same vision.
I have no idea why civics is not taught in our schools, or at least not as intensely as in the past. Perhaps we are so obsessed with being politically correct that we are being “guilted” into not taking pride in past accomplishments.
Or perhaps we are falling into the rabbit hole by the woke mob who’ve become intolerant of anyone from the past who was not perfect or lived up to their contemporary standards.
Perhaps they do not like the philosophy behind President Theodore Roosevelt’s “Man in the Arena” speech where he said it isn’t the critic who counts, but the man in the arena who does the hard work of making this a better country. These days it seems the critic gets all the accolades and attention, while the ones who do heavy lifting are treated like unsophisticated dunces.
Or perhaps the critics and those opposed or ambivalent to old-fashioned civics classes don’t believe in their country anymore. Give up on your country, you give up on yourself. Do they want to take down the country with them?
Traditionally civics classes looked at just aspects of the full U.S. Constitution. Half a century ago during the Free Speech era and protests against the Vietnam War, the primary emphasis was on the First Amendment, i.e. “we have the right to …
Say, read and watch whatever films we want, burn the American flag or make it an article of clothing, burn our draft card …
Instead, we must look at the history that led up to the document’s creation, and how a loose confederation of colonies had become unworkable. How delegates to the Constitutional Convention were chosen and how they worked — or did not — together. We need to study how they negotiated and compromised.
Now discussion is so focused on Second Amendment rights, at least the part about owning guns, that the other articles and amendments are pushed aside. These are important discussions to be sure, but we can’t let them be to the start and end of a civics class discussion.
Frederick Jackson Turner’s studies and writing about how the country grew despite and because of sectionalism between states and groups bears study also. We are shortchanging ourselves and those who have gone before us if we refuse or ignore those things.
Poor teachers make their subjects dull or dry. To hear America’s story takes someone who is positive and whose personality is dynamic to make the subject come alive.
“Talk is the glue that holds civilization together,” said Garrison Keillor in a recent online column. Studying civics is based upon such civil conversations.
In the early colonial years these occurred in coffee or public houses or between two farmers across stone fences. It led to building the greatest nation the world has known.

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