Bill Hart, Senior Research Analyst, Morrison Institute
Young Steward of Public Policy
"Lesson in Civics 101: Nation needs wonks "
by Bill Hart, Senior Research Analyst
Featured in The Arizona Republic Aug. 15, 2004
We tease them for their, well, wonkiness, but we need them for their public spirit
The crisis is at hand. The call must go out to our young people: Arizona needs wonks!
OK - if not actual wonks, then Arizona at least needs to say Yes to wonkery.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines "wonk" as "a studious or hard-working person," but we sometimes use it as a gentle slam on somebody who is excessively interested in the details of serious topics. You know, the kind of person who follows NATO or NASDAQ more than NASCAR.
Keep the jokes coming. But the fact is that Arizona and the rest of the country face a stunning array of complicated challenges that refuse to go away. We need to encourage the passion for the public good and devotion to factual analysis that are at the core of wonkery.
That's because wonkery is actually just another name for the study of public policy - which itself is a distilled form of that old standby, "civic-mindedness."
Remember "civic-mindedness"? Don't be surprised if the memory is fuzzy. There's little doubt that we face a severe deficit in the ranks of alert, engaged, informed citizens who form the backbone of the world's greatest democracy.
Without them - the voters who seek more than sound bites, the constituents who demand answers at meetings, and the volunteers who toil for causes beyond their own pocketbooks - we risk handing our children a diminished future.
As Harvard University scholar Robert Putnam wrote in Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, the decline in civic engagement has meant that "we have been pulled apart from one another and from our communities."
The decline of the whole "good citizen" approach seems especially marked among our young people. It's hard, though, to imagine growing up in a time when the values surrounding "civics" were less promoted than today, or when they had to compete for attention against more awesome forces of entertainment.
One solution: More wonkery - that is, more eager, informed young people studying, evaluating and championing those public choices that offer the greatest good for the greatest number. How to get there? A start would be more parents encouraging their kids to read the newspaper's front page as well as the comics; more civic groups drawing teens into cleanup campaigns and other volunteer work; more schools teaching civics and public policy, preparing students to be good citizens as well as good scholars and wage earners.
Not wonks, remember, but wonkery.
Public policy is not the same as politics or political science. Politics has been called "the art of the possible," the raw process - much informed by emotion and personality - of wielding power and authority. Political science is an academic discipline that often embraces long-term and theoretical analyses of political institutions.
Public policy, on the other hand, is the effort to find fact-based responses to immediate challenges. Its practitioners operate in the real world, aiming to uncover creative, cost-effective alternatives, regardless of philosophy, partisan advantage or personal gain.
If that sounds like a huge task, that's because it is. If it sounds almost impossibly idealistic, that fits too. If it sounds like a model for the kind of informed, respectful civic engagement that huge numbers of average, non-wonk Americans could practice, it certainly is.
Public policy is also an area that requires knowledge from several different fields of study, which may be one reason public policy doesn't get more exposure in today's schools. That, in part, is why the Morrison Institute for Public Policy created its Young Steward of Public Policy Program. Now in its second year, the effort seeks to prompt high school students and teachers to think about the state's public issues and emphasize the fact that today's high schoolers are tomorrow's leaders.
You will see from the accompanying two essays how well those goals are being achieved, and how impressive Arizona's young people can be when asked to address even the most complex and controversial of issues.
"What is refreshing about the Young Stewards is that they generally escaped the stereotypes of both politics and policy," said John Hall, a professor of Public Affairs at Arizona State University who helped judge the applicants' essays. "Most (essays) were creative and clear appraisals, not confined by biases about how the political system must work."
There is much cause for hope. And no, the program does not seek to turn unsuspecting youths into wonks, who will pore over census data instead of teen magazines, or trade in their iPods for wireless TVs locked onto C-SPAN.
Not wonks. Just citizens.
Bill Hart is a senior policy analyst at Morrison Institute for Public Policy (School of Public Affairs/College of Public Programs) at Arizona State University.