Assertive Citizenship and Civics Education: A Conversation with Bruce T. Olson

Ashley Thorne

Editor’s Note:Bruce T. Olson took a B.A. and M.A. in criminology at the University of California at Berkeley and a doctorate at Michigan State, and has taught at California State University, Fresno, and the University of Tulsa. His interest in criminology, law enforcement, and local government led to his focus on grand juries and civics education. Dr. Olson helped to found and was for twenty years the executive director of the American Grand Jury Foundation (www.grandjuryfoundation.org), a 501(c)(3) nonprofit corporation that has trained California civil grand jurors to perform their statutory duties for over three decades. In addition to producing grand jury manuals and other publications about interviewing, sources of information, and a computerized recommendation-tracking system for grand juries, the foundation published an extensive evaluation of the California civil grand jury: Grand Juries in California: A Study in Citizenship (2000). More recently, the foundation has focused its research on the nature and practice of American citizenship.

Academic Questions has taken civics education as an abiding focus since the publication of A Crucible Moment: College Learning and Democracy’s Future, an initiative advanced by the Obama administration and designed to transform civics education at the elementary, secondary, and post-secondary levels along egalitarian and global lines, involving students in the fight for “social justice.” Our Fall 2012 issue featured a special section, A Crucible Moment? A Forum on the President’s Call for a New Civics, with commentaries from eleven authors.

We thought readers would like to learn what this expert on the relationship between the citizen and the state might have to say about an appropriate civics education for American students as well as his observations on some recent developments in American political life.

Thorne:I know that you are deeply interested in civics education, and your interest began with your experience with grand juries in California. Tell us about that experience.

Olson: Before I began teaching, I worked in law enforcement, for a statewide taxpayer’s association, and as a local government reporter; all had a common theme—a growing interest in the relationship between citizens and the state. As time went by I became more and more interested in grand jurors—“just people off the street” a county manager once put it—and why, as California citizens with an opportunity to “clean up city hall,” so many people either can’t do it, bungle it, or avoid doing it. I finished my master’s coursework at Berkeley on the subject in 1959. My thesis was accepted in 1966, and I published a book in 2000, Grand Juries in California: A Study in Citizenship. The thesis led to my being asked to participate in training citizens throughout California for grand jury duty. At the time, about the only training grand jurors received for their watchdog responsibilities was what local government officials gave them—an interesting irony when you think about it. Eventually, my informal work with prospective grand jurors resulted in the creation of a nonprofit organization, the American Grand Jury Foundation, which was founded in 1978. I was the executive director for twenty years thereafter.

Thorne:Can you enlighten those of us who are unfamiliar with how grand juries work? What is their basic purpose?

Olson: The basic purpose of civil grand juries is essentially to make certain that local governments perform their responsibilities effectively. I should add “lawfully” to that description. There is nothing in the statutes that gives grand juries the authority to comment, oppose, or criticize local government policies. The authority is about how policy is implemented, in other words, the procedures of government.

One of California grand juries’ most potentially empowering statutes is its “accusation authority.” As a legal term, an accusation is a process that allows grand jurors to remove a public officer from office for malfeasance, misfeasance, or nonfeasance. Unfortunately, if you examine the dates of grand juries filing accusations through the decades, you’ll see that they do it less frequently with each passing decade. I think this is an important insight into the twilight of the concept of assertive citizenship.

I should add that what I have said about grand juries pertains to California in general. Nationwide, there are few, if any, grand juries exactly like those of the Golden State. Some states have no grand juries.

Thorne:So California grand juries give citizens the opportunity to clean up city hall—can you give some examples?

Olson: As I was writing my master’s thesis, I read in one county grand jury report repeated comments about several pieces of sharp steel wire protruding from the ground at a grammar school playground. This situation was reported on for three years in a row and it was only in the last year that the grand jury of that year—which was composed of an entirely different body of people from the previous years—noted with approval that the wire had been removed and that the education bureaucrat who had ignored the recommendations previously was transferred to another part of the bureaucracy.

This idea is something like that of Professor James Wilson, who made the “Broken Windows” thesis so popular: if government requires people to repair what seem to be minor matters, what might have been a rundown neighborhood will eventually heal itself. The same thing can be accomplished with grand jury reports. If local government officials and employees see that the grand juries are concerned about little problems they might take more initiative in tackling big ones. Shining light on a major problem is also beneficial. The idea soon spreads in local government that the grand jury is watching. By the way, you may have noticed that I have used not particularly sensational examples. There are many more dramatic ones in the history of the California grand jury, as my book reveals.

Thorne:On the American Grand Jury Foundation website you describe a project to study civics textbooks of the past. Can you explain it here?

Olson: Over the past two decades I began to wonder why civics as it once was seemed to be passé. I enjoy visiting bookstores selling old books, so I decided to search for civics textbooks that were published up to about the time when FDR took office. I thought these old books would reveal some answers to changes I saw in how Americans interacted with their governments. It’s pretty obvious that there are considerable differences in what students read about civics in those days and what they are required to read today.

Thorne:Such as?

Olson: One big difference is the amount of space that the earlier textbooks gave to local governments such as cities, counties, townships, town meetings, incorporated villages, and sometimes even to special districts such as school districts. Along with this, you will also find references to local elected or appointed officials such as aldermen, chiefs of police, county superintendents of schools, or the county registrar. “Local” also turns up in the titles that include words such as “community.” One writer of the early Progressive era even included “fence viewers” in his treatment of New England townships. That’s pretty local.

Related to this is the order of these subjects. For example, in the older books, material about local government precedes information about state government, and national or federal government is last in line. The title of one fairly widely used book of the Progressive era expressed that period’s focus as Civics: The Community and the Citizen.

Another difference that I have seen in my exploratory review of these books previous to the Progressive era are occasional references to the dysfunctions of self-government, with such terms as “fraud,” “graft,” “corruption,” “log-rolling,” “patronage,” the “spoils system,” “bribery,” the “Corrupt Practices Act,” and so on. Very few of these words appear in later books. One term I don’t expect to see in contemporary history or civics textbooks appeared in another text from the Progressive era: “patriotic citizenship.”

Thorne:You’ve written that an important part of the sustainability of our society depends on our skill in self-government, which in turn depends on the initiative of thoughtful, educated citizens willing to act. Why are self-government and the notion of individual initiative so important? What happens without them?

Olson: There is a widely quoted statement that warns: “Government is not reason, it is not eloquence; it is force; like fire, a troublesome servant and a fearful master. Never for a moment should it be left to irresponsible action.” We’re always going to have to deal with issues like self-interest and the abuse of political power. Human nature being what it is, you’re going to have to contend with behavior like the capture of our nation’s financial system by interest groups who use it for their own benefit. You’re always going to have people abusing political power. Assertive citizenship is really made up of a lot of small things. For example, when you go to local government meetings and find out that citizens in the audience are limited to two minutes to make a presentation after the city council has talked for six hours about some new spending initiative, you have to wonder how that happened. How can you practice self-government under those circumstances?

Thorne:Does one person stand out to you as an example of effective individual activism?

Olson: Clifford Clinton, who among many others was a Los Angeles grand juror in the 1930s, is an unsung civic hero. He succeeded in persuading some of his fellow grand jurors to look into the possibility of the theft of foodstuffs from the county hospital. He was equipped to do the research needed to look into this matter because he had built three successful restaurants that survived the Great Depression. He knew the restaurant business inside and out. He found out that a lot of money for the jail and hospital cafeterias in county government was going out the back door.

Clinton was up against some very strong opposition. Some came from fellow grand jurors. From what I’ve read, quite a few of the superior court judges in Los Angeles were also of questionable character. After the grand jury agreed to conduct the investigation, somebody blew up part of Clinton’s house. The story kept unfolding for years after Clinton’s service and it had much to do with a wave of civic reform through World War II into the early 1960s.

You’ll find a brief account of Clinton’s heroic grand jury service in my book. If anyone ever deserved an “assertive citizenship” congressional medal of honor, Mr. Clinton certainly did.

Thorne:We’ve seen two major movements in civic activism recently: the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street. What is your view of these movements?

Olson: A few years ago I met a Tea Party member in one of my grand jury seminars. I asked him on a coffee break if the Tea Party had done anything in his county along the lines of what grand juries are authorized to do. He said no. Then I asked him, “Have you seen any statewide or national evidence that Tea Party people are cleaning up city hall or the county courthouses?” Again, no. Well, I guess that’s a sign of the state of civics in our country. It’s even more interesting when you realize that with some exceptions, any citizen can do what California grand jurors are authorized to do. But about all that happens is lots of protesting without positive action. As for the Occupy Wall Street movement, what I have seen on television about them is not encouraging. I don’t see anything specific coming out of it. I must admit, though, that I don’t monitor either of these groups.

Thorne:Last year the Association of American Colleges & Universities (AAC&U) producedA Crucible Moment, a report commissioned by the Obama administration advocating the improvement of civics education. The report includes a list of values the AAC&U sees as framing this kind of education: respect for freedom and human dignity, empathy, open-mindedness, tolerance, justice, equality, ethical integrity, responsibility to a larger good. These are all noble-sounding terms, but do they have hidden meanings?

Olson: How can you argue against any of them? These are “feel-good” phrases, but without more detail they are vacuous and soporific. I can’t say that they have hidden meanings. If I were grading a student’s paper and saw these words quoted from A Crucible Moment, I’d underline each one of them and write, “The devil is in the details. DEFINE. EXPLAIN.”

Thorne:If you could design a civics curriculum for our schools and universities, what would you have students learn and do?

Olson: If I were designing a curriculum to submit to a curriculum committee, it would have to be more detailed than we have room here to discuss. Instead, I’ll list a few principles for civics education à la self-government.

First, don’t fall into the trap of thinking that one or two classroom lectures about voting is the end of the matter. Assertive civics involves much more and has to be ongoing.

I also think that civics education should be much more than informing students about all the benefits that local government “gives them.” They should know not only that local governments exist, but also some of the details about them, such as what their tax dollars are spent on, what those dollars “buy,” and what are the civic consequences. Our local community college district, for example, spends millions of dollars a year and all of its employees are government workers. More than that, a surprisingly large percentage of them in the district are married couples. The percentage of such people might be as high as 25 percent, and that doesn’t include cohabitants. For me this raises a red flag for nepotism. Some people will say, “So what?” if I raise the subject. A few decades ago, this kind of information would have been grist for the mill for investigative reporters. It would also make a good “critical thinking” exercise in a civics curriculum.

At the junior college I am referring to there is no course in the school catalog with the word “civics” in the title—and if there were, one has to wonder what it would look like in an institution where all of its employees are government workers. A balanced civics curriculum would also include courses that instruct students not only in the many benefits of public education, law enforcement, fire services, etc., but also in the varieties of fraud, graft, and corruption that are peculiar to local government. Other examples of what should be in the curriculum are the Freedom of Information Act and what it means to citizens, where to obtain information about budgets and expenditures, and how to study and understand such documents.

I don’t expect every citizen in the county where I live to be assertive citizens, but even if only 5 percent had such knowledge—and the skills and motivation to use it—I have no doubt that the list of major civic calamities that have occurred in our county in the past decade (including several financial disasters on the order of what occurred in Orange County in 1994 and 2010) would be half as long as it now is. I’d also include introductions to the various types of lawsuits and statutes whistle-blower citizens can use in certain kinds of civic problems.

This kind of curriculum is not too lofty for high school juniors and seniors. A few years back, a student in the Midwest wrote an article for his high school newspaper about how the school superintendent was using public funds to take his lady friend on an expensive overseas trip to a professional meeting. When the story broke, it wasn’t long before the superintendent was looking for another job. This episode suggests another thought about civics education in high schools. Maybe someone should write a textbook for high school and college journalists about investigative journalism.

Thorne:What is the historical basis for this kind of education?

Olson: There’s a wonderful book by Charles Dickens about the kings and queens of England, A Child’s History of England. I read it when I was well into my fifties, and I wish I had heard about it in high school. Another good book for a high school civics class would be the Book of Judges in the Bible. That paints a different picture of the leadership than we might find in a history of government textbook. Obviously, that book might not be on the approved reading list either. Of the kings and queens in Dickens’s volume, I estimate that about 60 percent were sociopaths. These rulers used their power to get rid of citizens who crossed them. Somehow, we have to show our young people that the objective of some public officials is not merely to do things for you but to do things to you. Books like these can show students that it’s not odd to be an assertive citizen, especially when the stakes for being one are high. If you want government not to become oppressive, you have to watch it. You can’t turn your back on it and say, “We’re hiring those people. They’re wonderful individuals, they all have fine college degrees, and we can depend on them to do right.” Many of them will do right, but some of them won’t, and that can make life pretty miserable.

We need to teach young people that it’s not a dirty thing to be an assertive citizen. It’s okay. As a matter of fact, it’s what this country is about.

Thorne:What would you like to see the National Association of Scholars do to promote good citizenship in America?

Olson: I’d like to see NAS invite its members to submit suggestions for the content of a series of brief, say, 70- to 125-page civics textbooks that define and embrace the spirit of constitutional self-government more than those texts now available do. I have no doubt that this would rattle the cages of the educational establishment, but some homeschooling families might like it.

If only ten thousand families that homeschool used textbooks with an assertive self-government theme, it might be enough to bring about important changes in civics education in our country. I think that such a project is not merely something “nice to do,” but of great potential importance for the survival of our form of government. Most social trends are not the projects of mass movement, but come about because a handful of dedicated people create and man them.

One way to begin this project would be to employ some appropriate research method that is used for obtaining opinions from respondents. I would think that the response rate from NAS members would be very high. Of course, what I have suggested is merely one idea. No doubt, your members have many more thoughts about the matter. A national conference about the subject might yield other insights to the question of what kind of education is best for our constitutional republic that the country’s Founders had it mind.

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