Mitch Pearlstein testimony on civics education

This testimony before the Minnesota Senate Education Committee was delivered on February 5, 2020.

Madam Chair and Members of the Committee, my name is Mitch Pearlstein and it’s an honor to be with you today to talk about civics education.

At the risk of resume reading, I have held several jobs over the years pertinent to the subject at hand in education, government, and journalism, including special assistant for policy and communications to Gov. Al Quie; as an official of the U.S. Department of Education; as an editorial writer for the Pioneer Press; and as founder of Center of the American Experiment.  Of academic relevance, I hold a Ph.D. in educational administration from the University of Minnesota.

But my starting point in talking about civics education this afternoon predates all of that, going back to the most difficult days of Vietnam, a half-century ago.

Back then I began describing great numbers of fellow young people as “naïve cynics,” a seeming contradiction in terms.  How could one be naïve and cynical at the same time?  But they were in the sense they had come to think dreadful things about the United States when they had only slim and skewed knowledge about their country.

It’s one thing to be cynical and sour when you’re old and jaundiced.  It’s another thing when you’re young and have yet to traipse even a quarter of the way around the block.

My aim for civics education is to reduce naïve cynicism among students by giving them a fuller understanding of governmental and other rudiments of our nation.  Not a partisan or storybook understanding, but as accurate and balanced a grasp as possible.  One that takes straightforward account of our past sins and current shortcomings, of which there are many, but also makes it clear that the United States’ animating idea has always been worthy of respect and remains so.  And that for a nation of a third-of-a-billion diverse souls, all kinds of things work better than routinely advertised.

Most specifically, despite polarizing troubles among a multitude of groups, interests, and factions, we get along better with each other – as human beings, as fellow Americans – than we routinely give ourselves credit for.

Many students, of course, will be untouched and unpersuaded by what I’m talking about, and if they are latter-day naïve cynics upon entering a civics class or program, they may well leave that way.  But at least educators and grown-ups who have made it farther around all kinds of blocks will have tried.