Former Senator urges civic engagement

“Teaching citizenship has almost disappeared from the curriculum—at all levels—in this country.”

That was one of the messages Florida’s former Democratic senator and governor Bob Graham delivered to roughly 60 doctorate students of Northeastern’s College of Professional Studies law and policy program during a lecture Friday evening. Graham, a guest lecturer for the program, bemoaned the lack of understanding among Americans of the importance of civic engagement. It’s a fact he witnessed firsthand during his time teaching in a Florida public school and then as a senior fellow at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.

He recounted his shock at learning how little his Harvard students knew about civics. “They were almost illiterate on the topic,” he said.

Graham, who was also a presidential nominee during the 2004 election, had a more positive message, too, offering advice to students about how they could become more engaged citizens. It’s a topic he tackles in his new book, “America, the Owner’s Manual: Making Government Work for You,” co-authored by Chris Hand, which spotlights stories of individuals who have helped transform their communities through active citizenry. Graham hopes the stories will inspire readers to become more involved and to understand that change is possible.

He also referred to his personal experience teaching a high-school civics course in Miami three decades ago. The course first focused on helping students develop the skills necessary to become active participants in their communities and then provided the opportunity for hands-on experience. One group of students, for example, worked with local officials for 18 weeks to improve the city’s drinking water.

The young students got a taste of the positive effect that civic engagement can have on a community, explained Graham. “What was really important was that they learned that you can fight city hall if you are prepared to learn and to work,” he added.

He urged Friday’s audience of graduate students toward similar civic action—both in the United States and abroad—reminding the group that such engagement paves the way for positive change at all levels, from our school systems to local and national governments. He also praised the students for having the drive to further hone their civic skills through extended education.

“All over the world, there is a recognition that being a good citizen takes the development of learned values and attitudes in order to be effective,” he said, adding, “I hope that my book encourages a new approach to teaching that is focused on participatory civics.”

Graham is still actively involved in public service and often provides advice to leaders in Washington on security and international issues. He currently serves as chairman of the Commission on the Prevention of the Proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction and Terrorism, established by the U.S. government in 2008.