TALLAHASSEE — Former Senator Bob Graham says the lack of a more rigorous civics education in U.S. schools has left the American public all but politically impotent.
“They know there are 435 members in the House of Representatives, they know the Supreme Court has nine members and all that stuff, but what they don’t know is how to make government work for them,” Graham told POLITICO Florida in an interview last week.
Sitting in an office on Monroe Street, the former two-term Florida governor spoke of his disappointment that most of his grandchildren, for instance, had not taken a civics class before they graduated from high school and that those who did took a single, six-month course.
“That’s the standard today,” Graham said in recalling that he took three, one-year government classes before graduating from high school in 1955.
In trying to bridge the civic education gap in America, Graham, along with his former speech writer, Chris Hand, are promoting the latest edition of their 2009 book, “America The Owner’s Manual: You Can Fight City Hall and Win.” It’s a how-to guide that teaches people how to interact directly with their government and make it respond to their concerns.
The tandem were in Tallahassee last week and held a book signing at Midtown Reader.
Before publishing the civics lessons in a book, the 80-year-old Graham taught them to students. The first time was at a Carol City High School in Miami in 1974, while he was a lawmaker in the Florida Legislature, during one of his famed “work days” where he would spend a day trying his hand at a different job.
Graham shared the ideas again decades later while a fellow at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard. While at Harvard, political scientist professor Robert D. Putnam encouraged Graham to take the curriculum and publish it in the book.
The book focuses on different skills citizens can use and includes experts who provide tips on how to put those skills into public action. It also shares the stories of people who have successfully swayed government through citizenship.
Though the first edition of the book was published in 2009, the decline of mainstream journalism and the rise of social media has changed how people learn about their government and how they try to interact with it.
Graham said social media “affects everything from researching to fund raising to supporting the issue you are advocating.”
The book also includes information on how podcasts can be used to address decision makers by sharing the story of how in 2015 two women on opposite ends of the political spectrum launched a successful podcast, “The Pollsters.”
After a joint media appearance discussing the 2015 State of the Union address, Margie Omero and Kristin Solits Anderson “planted the flag” for their podcast, which often is among the top-ranked political podcasts on Apple iTunes.
“If you worry that creating, producing and airing a podcast is beyond your technical abilities or financial means , think again. Producing, podcasting is often that ultimate DIY (Do-It-Yourself) activity,” the women wrote.
Graham wrote both editions of the political guide with Hand, who also was his campaign press secretary. Though he says he enjoys writing, Graham is quick to credit Hand with polishing his words.
Says Hand: “When you are writing with someone for that long, you become hard wired into each other’s brains. You can finish each other’s sentences.”
The latest edition of the book was published October 18, and Hand said interest has spiked since last month’s election from supporters of both president elect Donald Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton. “It’s been very interesting to see,” he said.
Graham agreed, noting that Clinton supporters, in particular, have gone from a sense of excitement of seeing the first woman in American history to become president to dismay at Trump’s surprising victory.
“I hope this book might inspire some of those people to say ‘you don’t have to depend on electing a president or electing a mayor. You, as citizens, can identify what you would like to have for your community and make it happen,” Graham said.