It's hard to imagine anyone graduating from high school today, much less college, without being computer literate. One way or another, kids learn how to get online, how to navigate the Internet, how to live in a wired world.
Civic literacy is another matter.
How many of you know how to move a stop sign, I ask students in my undergraduate classes and at colleges I visit. What I mostly get in response are blank stares and the occasional story of a drunken escapade that involved a street sign, which, of course, is not what I meant at all.
What I mean is: How many of you know how to organize and petition and make democracy work? How many of you know how to wield the power that comes from activism, energy and know-how in the workplace or the community?
Student council and college government aren't really about whether you can get better food on campus or longer time periods between classes. They're about learning how to make change happen. But student government doesn't command the attention it once did when universities and even high schools were hotbeds of political activity. Kids today have too much homework.
But there needs to be a place to learn the skills of citizenry.
Last year, my young friend Bella Peyser took a course in "Grassroots Activism" from one of the legendary teachers at her school. In excited tones, she told me about how she ended up interning at the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy (LAANE) and decided to spend her summer there. She then got involved in the effort to organize hotel workers in Long Beach and "did" her first demonstration last Thursday at the Long Beach Hyatt. "Did you know," she said to me, "that these women clean as many as 30 hotel rooms a day? And they are your age!" Her mom and I were roommates in college, which was a very long time ago.
UNITE HERE is attempting to organize hotel workers at Hyatts nationwide. Last Thursday's demonstration at the Long Beach Hyatt was one of many around the country, a "day of action" intended to focus attention on the fight for better wages and working conditions. Hyatt, through a spokesperson, denounced the action as "union posturing," claiming its real purpose was simply to increase union membership and the dues paid to the union.
When I mentioned that to Bella, she told me how hard the women work, how much better pay and conditions are at the union hotels, and how the workers need to bargain collectively to establish standards and to protect themselves from arbitrary layoffs.
I'm not in a position to judge that fight. But I do know this: Bella is learning lessons that will last a lifetime, however her political philosophy may evolve. She has learned how to work for change, how to raise her voice in concert with others, how to do politics.
The big scandal in Los Angeles these days involves the city of Bell, a community of about 40,000 hardworking people who, unbeknownst to them, were paying their city manager a salary of almost $800,000, their part-time city council members nearly $100,000 each and their police chief more than the president of the United States. They got away with it because the citizens didn't know what was going on. Nobody was doing any politics except the people who were getting away with armed robbery.
Democracy doesn't work on its own. Change doesn't happen just because it should. The skills of civic literacy, the knowledge of how to organize, are as important as knowing how to operate in a computerized world. They have to be taught, and they have to be learned. Bella's first demonstration will not be her last. If she needs to, she now knows how to move a stop sign — or get one put up.
Susan Estrich is a syndicated columnist. E-mail her on the Creators Syndicate website, www.creators.com.