Civic Education: Cynicism’s Cure

September 19, 2011

For release Sept. 21 and thereafter (679 words)

“My vote doesn’t matter.” That’s how a 23-year-old Hoosier justified his failure to vote in the past several elections. It’s a surprisingly common attitude. According to the first ever report on Indiana’s civic health, Hoosiers register to vote, vote, and talk politics a lot less than citizens in other states.

Indiana Chief Justice Randall Shepard, who co-chaired the civic health initiative with former U.S. Rep. Lee Hamilton, says the results of the study are “counterintuitive.” On the one hand, Hoosiers exceed the national average in the percentage of citizens involved in community groups. Thirty-six percent of us belong to religious, neighborhood, school, sports and other organizations, putting us at 21st in the nation in that category.

On the other hand, Indiana ranked 43rd in the rate of citizens who are registered to vote — 61.2 percent — and 48th in voter turnout in 2010 at 39.4 percent. That’s six percentage points lower than the national average of 45.5 percent.

Indiana ranked 48th in the number of citizens discussing politics frequently. “Nearly 45 percent of Hoosiers say they do not discuss politics at all” — a finding that undermines the very notion of government by “we the people.”

The Civic Health Index was one of three calls to action issued last week to coincide with the 224thanniversary of the signing of the U.S. Constitution.

A survey by the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania echoed earlier findings that Americans don’t know much about their government. Nationally, just 38 percent can name all three branches: executive, legislative and judicial. A third can’t name any.

The third report, “Guardian of Democracy,” was produced by the Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools, co-chaired by Hamilton and retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor.

The study began by documenting a “decades-long decline” in the civic role of U.S schools. Prior to the 1960s most high schools offered three courses in civics and government. Today a typical requirement – as in Indiana – is one semester of government, often relegated to final semester of senior year.

That’s insufficient if we want schools to produce students fluent in the language of self-governance. “Research shows that Americans who are not properly educated about their roles as citizens are less likely to be critically engaged by nearly any metric,” the report says. “They are less likely to vote, less likely to engage in political discourse and less likely to participate in community improvement projects than their counterparts who receive civic education.”

Obvious solutions such as voter registration drives and longer polling hours can help, but the underlying problem is attitude. How do we overcome the cynicism and persuade citizens their views matter?

The report recommends the following proven practices that all schools should implement: offering high-quality instruction in government, history, economics, law and democracy; integrating discussion of current events into the school day; providing opportunities for community service and extra curricular activities; giving students the chance to practice democracy through student government associations; and simulating democratic processes in programs such as debate club and Model United Nations.

Naysayers will claim that America’s schools are already being asked to do too much and can’t possibly add more mandates to the list.

We can look to England to see the future if we fail to teach our children the rights and responsibilities that come with being an American. As the “Guardian of Democracy” report warns, “Upon examining the data, it becomes impossible to ignore the individual disempowerment, lack of participation and civic achievement gap that threatens the fairness and democratic nature of our system of government.”

Criminologist John Pitts told the BBC that the vandalism in the UK in August went beyond thuggery and showed what’s possible when young people feel marginalized without economic or educational opportunity. Looting makes “powerless people suddenly feel powerful,” he said, and that is “very intoxicating.”

Schools are the obvious place to hook young citizens on the merits of voting, debating and running for office. Having a say in government — now that’s an intoxicating feeling.

Andrea Neal is a teacher at St. Richard’s Episcopal School in Indianapolis and adjunct scholar with the Indiana Policy Review Foundation. Contact her at aneal@inpolicy.org.



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