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Friday, September 3, 2010

Citizenship, Knowledge, and Political Science

In a paper at the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association, Robert Maranto and Dirk C. van Raemdonck of the University of Arkansas argue that political scientists should help citizens become more deliberative. An excerpt (full text here):
There is widespread agreement, backed by no small empirical support, that the American people do not know as much as is desirable to assure good decisions about what policies to support and what candidates to vote for... Civic education typically focuses on the structures of American government, matters such as the separation of powers and the Bill of Rights. These are very important, and there is evidence that colleges do a very poor job imparting this basic knowledge. Surveys indicate that at many elite colleges, first year students have greater civic knowledge than seniors (Intercollegiate Studies Association 2010). Yet we argue that basic knowledge about such matters as where public resources come from and go to, and what government can and cannot do, are even more important.

Accordingly, we propose that APSA begin a dialogue with former policy-makers to divine what they feel American voters need to know. In the absence of such data, we propose that to be good citizens students have three broad sets of knowledge about how government officials operate:

1. Where public resources go (chiefly to middle class entitlement spending).
2. How government actors make decisions in highly constrained, limited
information environments, and accordingly why with the best of intentions, they often make mistakes.
3. How elite and popular interpretations of past historical periods and events (the Depression, World War II, the Cold War, Vietnam) guide the language and thought of policy-makers (e.g., Jervis 1976).

Without this background knowledge, citizens cannot understand how their government (mostly) works. As it happens, our field is well positioned to teach undergraduates this basic knowledge they need to make good decisions about public life.