If you want to restore your faith in the future of our democracy, you should tune into live streams of 4-H Day at the Capitol on March 25th. Each year, 4-H youth from all over the state visit the capitol in Tallahassee to meet their legislators and witness government in action. COVID-19 will make it a virtual visit this year, but the advantage is that more people will be able to participate. On March 25th at 6 PM, there will be a special live event for 4-H alumni and friends. Expect to see a lot of green on your screen.
As you may know, America had a check-up in January, and the results were not good. There has been widespread concern about health of our democracy. The most worrying symptoms include public apathy, the erosion of civil discourse, and a lack of basic civics knowledge. A recent Annenberg study revealed that only two out of every five Americans could correctly identify all three branches of our federal government.
Some of these symptoms can be traced back to our neglect of civics in public education. Out of the federal education budget, only 5 cents per student, per year is spent on K-12 civics education, compared with $50 per student for STEM. I’m not advocating that we scale back teaching STEM in our schools, but if we want a functioning democracy with an informed, engaged citizenry, we’re going to have to chip in more than a nickel.
To address this issue, Educating for American Democracy, an effort funded by the U.S. Department of Education and National Endowment for the Humanities, recently issued an ambitious plan of action that advocates an approach to history and civics based less on memorizing dates and names and more on asking questions, discussing issues and finding solutions.
This is a welcome reaffirmation for 4-H, which has been teaching kids a hands-on approach to civics education for many years. “Citizenship and Leadership” is one of the three main program areas of Florida 4-H, the youth development program of UF/IFAS Extension. 4-H works on the principle of learning by doing. In clubs, camps and school enrichment programs, youth ages 5-18 complete self-directed projects under the guidance of Extension-trained advisors and volunteers.
4-H Citizenship and Leadership programs take a tree-ring approach to civics education, growing outward from the center. Young children are mainly concerned with themselves, their family and friends. Appropriately, early projects for ages 8-10 are focused on self-identity, self-acceptance, and relationships with family and friends, teaching youth that good citizenship begins with knowing yourself and being able to relate to others.
From there, youth learn to explore and get involved in their neighborhood, their community, their school and their 4-H clubs. Each club meeting is a microcosm of the democratic process, where officers are elected, laws are proposed and voted on and rules of civil discourse are reinforced. During the opening session of the 4-H Youth Development Institute in January, I talked about the rule of law and how it relates to what we teach in 4-H. Our clubs, contests and competitions are the forums where youth learn respect for law while developing the skills to influence change.
As youth progress through 4-H, they learn about their local, state and federal government and engage in volunteer service projects that impact their community. They can also take part in competitive events that hone their speaking skills and develop their self-confidence. In Florida 4-H Legislature (or “Leg” as it’s known), teen 4-H members serve as legislators in a model legislative session at the Florida State Capitol. Each member learns, practices and defends the theory and process of representing citizens and making public policy. Florida 4-H Council is its real-world governing body, made up of youth elected from each county. By representing their community in the council, 4-H’ers learn to discover their leadership skills and guide the future course of 4-H programs.
By the time they’re ready for 4-H Day at the Capitol, many of these students have a thorough background in governance and civic engagement. They’re experienced parliamentarians who know how to caucus. They’re polite, they’re respectful, and they’re armed with questions and talking points. More than a virtual field trip to Tallahassee, 4-H Day at the Capitol is as much about our legislators learning from 4-H as 4-H’ers learning about their government.
These youth hold the keys to preserving and strengthening our democracy for the future. We would do well to listen to them.
You can learn more about Florida 4-H Day at the Capitol at: https://sites.google.com/ufl.edu/fl4-hdatc/home
To register for the virtual 4-H Alumni and Friends Celebration, visit: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/florida-4-h-alumni-friends-celebration-tickets-142887960737?aff=blog