Top Image

You are here: Home / Blog / Enlightened Self-Interest: the Secret Sauce of Civic Education

Enlightened Self-Interest: the Secret Sauce of Civic Education

created Mar 14, 2018 12:10 PM

by Nancy McTygue, Executive Director

I grew up in a one-stoplight town in rural Sonoma County and in 1982 I took the biggest and most exciting trip I’d ever taken.  I got on a Greyhound bus by myself and rode approximately 100 miles to the big city – Sacramento – to take part in Girls State, an annual program that brings together high school girls across the state to, “develop leadership skills, confidence, and understanding of the government process…” to “…help ensure the survival of our democracy,” according to their mission statement.  I loved it and partly as a result of that experience, I decided to study political science in college, and as part of my studies, interned at the Capitol, and eventually became a high school social studies teacher. 

I taught history and government for eleven years, and as part of that work, actively sought out opportunities for my students to engage in the type of experiential activities I’d first encountered at Girls State, like Legischool, where a handful of my students actually got to engage in a mock hearing at the capitol with actual legislators. And after a few years of teaching, I got pretty good at explaining how the government works, at least at a basic three branches of government / checks and balances level.  But while I could get my students to understand how the government works, and a handful – usually those from the more privileged homes - actually seemed to develop more than a passing interest, what continued to frustrate me was my inability to motivate and engage the majority of my students.  I just couldn’t get them to care.

As we were putting together the LeadLearn conference on civic education recently, I reflected on my own failure to get my students engaged – the irony wasn’t lost on me.  Despite my own lack of success, I continue to get excited by the conversation, and in particular, the opportunities we have with the next two presenters, who both, I believe, help us all expand the conversation in a way that will improve our collective ability to engage more students.  Over the last few years, I’ve begun to believe that at least part of the problem with a lack of student engagement results from a narrow definition of civic education – one that ignores student self-interest.  We all I think can agree that students need to know about the government – how a bill becomes a law, for example.  We also likely can see the value in experiential activities that give students practice in the democratic system – things like Girls State, Mock Trials, or even student government.  But I think these two things are not enough because they don’t offer all students a reason to be engaged.  And to find that reason, surprisingly, I think the economist Adam Smith might have some insight.

In The Wealth of Nations, Smith argues that, “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.” Smith goes on to say that “By pursuing his own interest he frequently promotes that of the society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it.” Smith’s enlightened self-interest provides the motivation for serving the common good and it is here where I think we’ve fallen down in civic education.  We need to help our students understand that it is in their own self-interest to take an interest in and participate as part of our democratic system.  They should do it not because we tell them to or because we try to convince them voting is somehow cool and fun, but because it is in their own self-interest to do so.  And once students get motivated by their own interest, it is our responsibility to leverage that self-interest into productive and civic-minded action to serve the common good.

For those of us who study history, the importance of self-interest in motivating and maintaining civic engagement should not be a surprise.  There are many examples from history where collective action started with personal self-interest. For example, why did we demand independence from Great Britain?  While some colonists rebelled against the tyranny of English monarchy, many others were looking out for their pocketbooks in response to increasing and unsustainable levels of taxation that threatened their ability to make ends meet.  Women didn’t gain the right to vote in the United States just because the country woke up and realized it was the right thing to do.  The suffrage movement gained important – and self-interested – support from the temperance movement and those in the west who felt it would help address a shortage of women west of the Mississippi, thereby expanding western populations, and as a result, representation in Congress.

So I believe the challenge for us all is to help our students connect civic activity to their own interests, and then help them connect those interests to our system of governance, using lessons gleaned from those who have made change in the past.  We know that students do find connections to their communities by identifying problems that come from deeply personal experiences.  The most obvious example of personal experiences inspiring student civic action right now, I would argue, are the hundreds of students who travelled by bus from their homes in Parkland, Florida to the state capitol in Tallahassee to call for gun control, mental health funding, and other changes they believe will lessen the likelihood of another horrific school shooting.

The recent tragedy in Florida is not the only topic that can inspire student self-interest in politics.  Pick almost any topic on the nightly news – or your students’ social media newsfeed – and your students will likely have a position that represents their self-interest – from immigration, to safe drinking water, to the Black Lives Matter Movement, to the funding and quality of the schools they attend each day.  Our job as educators is helping them connect these topics within the larger context and teaching them how they can voice their perspectives in an informed and powerful way. 

Editors' Note:  Click here to watch a video of Nancy's presentation on this topic at the 2018 LeadLearn conference on civic education.

 
Recent Blog Posts
Dec 06, 2018
Civic Education: Our Democratic Responsibility
Civic Education:  Our Democratic Responsibility
Read more
Nov 26, 2018
Climate Change: A Federal Report
Climate Change: A Federal Report
Read more
Nov 13, 2018
#CaliforniaStrong
#CaliforniaStrong
Read more
Oct 31, 2018
A Sadly Repetitive Blog Post
A Sadly Repetitive Blog Post
Read more
Oct 15, 2018
CHSSP and CDE Win 2018 Beveridge Family Teaching Prize from the American Historical Association
CHSSP and CDE Win 2018 Beveridge Family Teaching Prize from the American Historical Association
Read more
Tag cloud