How Our Government Helps Us: A Charming 1969 Illustrated Primer
By Maria Popova
“America, if eligible at all to downfall and ruin, is eligible within herself, not without,” Walt Whitman asserted in his sublime and sublimely timely meditation on democracy, adding: “Always inform yourself; always do the best you can; always vote.” A century later, in her beautiful 1968 case for our individual responsibility in social change, Eleanor Roosevelt wrote: “Government is people… As individuals we can influence our government at every level… A democratic government represents the sum total of the courage and the integrity of its individuals. It cannot be better than they are.”
The end of the 1960s was an era of enormous social change, both hope-giving and vulnerable-making, when a new scientific revolution was bringing humanity closer together and the civil rights movement was finding new ways to keep us from being kept apart. Amid such massive and disorienting change, what people need most is a sense of agency, best acquired by instilling a passion for civic engagement and cultivating a sense of participatory responsibility from an early age.
That’s what writer Muriel Stanek and illustrator Jack Faulkner set out to do in the rare 1969 gem How Our Government Helps Us (public library) — a delightful primary school supplement, part of the same Social Studies Program series that produced How People Use and Earn Money, How People Live in the Suburbs, and How We Use Maps and Globes.
In vibrant drawings and simple language, the book explains the different layers of government — city, county, state, and federal — and their respective functions. What is edifying to the child is to the grownup reader a wonderful reminder of the many things we take for granted in the seemingly magical functioning of our daily lives, from the trash collection in our cities to public transportation to the parks and playgrounds in our neighborhoods.
Written mere months before the moon landing, the story honors the dawn of this new era of space exploration and scientific discovery.
The book is both ahead and very much of its time. The illustrations feature a woman doctor and quite a few people of color, including a police officer and a Supreme Court judge, but almost every instance of government power — cabinet members, senators, governors, the president himself — depicts middle-aged white men. Indeed, what makes the book particularly noteworthy is that it captures the perennial problem of social change — however far we may have come in our earnest effort toward equality, there is still that much further to go, and centuries of cultural conditioning often blind us to the proper direction of the new path.
For another clarion call for civic engagement from the same era, see urbanism patron saint Jane Jacobs on our civic duty in cultivating cities that foster a creative life.
Published June 8, 2016