December 2011
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How reality TV can educate American citizens

By Iman Azzi

If one were watching the current Republican primary race in hopes of buffing up on their civic education, their notes would look something like this:

  1. The Supreme Court has eight judges.
  2. The Revolutionary War began in Concord, New Hampshire.
  3. The US still has a diplomatic presence in Iran.

Lest charges of partisan bias obscure this blog’s thesis, it’s important to note that errors in American history happen on both sides of the aisle. Remember when President Obama let slip he had visited 57 states?

The point is not that in a 24-hour media world it’s becoming easier to find prominent politicians misspeaking. The point is that it’s becoming harder to find an average American citizen with a basic understanding of our nation’s government. According to the Philadelphia-based Annenberg Public Policy Center, only a third of Americans can name all three branches of government while another third can’t name a single one.

On the eve of the upcoming election year, I’ve come across two ideas, employing modern technology that hopes to combat this collective spiral of ignorance. While one can be found online, and is the brainchild of former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, the other exists in the mind of a high school senior but should be strongly considered as a way to engage his peers.

Since retiring in 2006, O’Connor, the first female appointed to the US Supreme Court, has actively campaigned for greater civic education in America. She began with a lessons packet on the judicial system, call Our Courts, but by 2010 had expanded the project into iCivics, after realizing that a more general knowledge of the US government was needed.

O’Connor’s iCivics website offers free lesson, competitions and interactive videogames for middle and high school students. She is gaining recognition across states and in classrooms and I’m sure countless teachers are grateful for the creative and cohesive lesson plans.

My favorite proposal I stumbled across this month comes from Tripp Peters, a high school senior in Pennsylvania. Reacting to the depressing success of “16 & Pregnant,” Tripp proposes a show called “18 & Voting,”[1] in hopes of making voting cool and learning about the government trendy, with the help of an MTV-designed soundtrack and the latest fashion trends I assume.

Video games and reality shows, often accused of helping America return to ignorance, should now be hailed as ways to get us out of our civic slump. Peters’ TV show would follow a diverse cast through the election season, encouraged by what the Founding Fathers believed in from the start – that power starts with the people – combined with the experiences of Aaron Sorkin – that a little drama never hurt. In this unpredictable election year, it would be just another twist of plot if a reality show was created to fill the gaps of knowledge left by those running for national office.


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