In which Isabel eagerly strives to understand government.
Memorizing the three branches is not understanding government. New “bottom-up” expositions are necessary and will become standard.
The image shows Confucius lecturing the skeptical emperor. "Until you tax your people efficiently, you cannot maintain your palace, or your armies, or your scholars and advisors."
The scene dissolves into a modern State of the Union address where the president (at the screen location where the emperor was) announces, "We must reform the tax code, to better support our important social welfare system."
A reporter at the scene approaches Izzy with a microphone and asks her, "Ma'am, the people don't understand why they must pay so much Federal taxes. Would you tell them:
B. Taxes help us to ensure security and safety
C. Taxes help the government to prepare for the future
Izzy thought a bit and selected B, and the display then showed her a tally of how millions of teenagers like her had voted.
How Others Voted:
B. Taxes help us to ensure security and safety (40%)
C. Taxes help the government to prepare for the future (50%)
You are right that our taxes today are used to ensure security and safety. Armies, though, provide security. And through much of recorded history, taxes were primarily…
Izzy was required to do this module sooner or later, but her interest in taking it immediately stemmed from her father's recent decision to run for City Council, which had set everyone abuzz. She realized that she wanted to quickly learn about government to support her dad, if only symbolically. And this module had appeared to be a good starting point.
The module was organized around several epochs: from the early hominids, to agriculture, to nation-states, to the present. Via time-lapse illustrations, it was able to show the form of government morph from tribes, to kingdoms, to rule of law, to representative government. The king and his advisor visually morphed into a dictator and his apparatus, then visually morphed into an executive and legislature.
Heavy stuff. But it was more fun than stressful, and so she skipped gaily from insight to insight.
Of course, what does it mean to understand government? Knowing what the three branches of government are is practically nothing. Real understanding may require knowing something about the evolution of government—even starting with the anthropology of early, tribal forms of government. Human nature does not change, and institutions like armies, bureaucratic administrations, and rule of law will forever contend with "tribal" factions that disrupt or seek to control the apparatus.
The good news is: the more you know how government has evolved, the more you are likely to respect and admire the modern nation-state—and even to feel a sense of pride. There will of course still be room for public discussions about the optimal size of the different parts of government, but we might see less of the crude argument that government should be shrunk as much as possible because government is inherently bad.
The educational device of polling is a surprisingly effective one, if done well. And a combination of technology and design will make it a lot better: easier for designers to insert frequently into material, and to provide options for geographic inclusion, friend/classmate vote reveals, side discussion, and so on. Why should we ever have to squelch our natural curiosity about what others think?