We think of ourselves as the world’s greatest democracy, but we’re doing a poor job of training the next generation of citizens.
In the U.S., 48% percent of young people rarely, if ever, participate in civic activities, only 57% of American adults are financially literate, and with an unprecedented student debt crisis, over 40% of recent college grads are underemployed, working in jobs that do not require a college degree. (Pew Research)
The U.S. is lagging in math, reading and science, and as a result, education policymakers have prioritized high stakes standardized testing in these subjects. But this has come with at least one unintended consequence: schools have doubled down on the tested “core” subjects at the expense of everything else.
Courses that are crucial in preparing students for an everchanging world have been reduced to electives across the country. And to compound that, when education budgets are cut, social studies and humanities electives are often the first to go.
In the latter part of the 19th century, public school attendance skyrocketed as foreign-born residents grew exponentially. As a result, public schools took on a new role of promoting assimilation and participation in democracy.
“For many generations of immigrants, the common school was the primary teacher of patriotism and civic values,” wrote Diane Ravitch and Joseph Viteritti in “Making Good Citizens: Education and Civil Society.”
The emphasis on civic education in public schools continued for decades until the Vietnam War, Watergate and other tumultuous events of the 1960s and ‘70s which gave rise to a loss of faith in political institutions.
As the Annenberg Public Policy Center explains, “Until the 1960s, three high school courses in civics and government were required, and two of them explored the role of citizens and encouraged students to discuss current issues. Today, what remains is a single course on American government that usually spends little time on how and why they should participate as citizens.”
Given low rates of political participation in the U.S. and the rise of misinformation online, civic education has never been more important.
There are many in the over-65 crowd who do not have skills that can help them navigate our avalanche of misinformation.
A bottom-up solution is students being taught how to spot a lie — training they could share with their parents and grandparents.
Another area of concern is the desire to vote as America still lags other developed countries in electoral participation. Even though our voter turnout in 2020 was the largest since 1900, we still rank out of the top 20 in the developed world.
Out of 35 member countries of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the U.S. ranks 24th in estimates of voter turnout based on voting age population.
These disappointing results are not surprising given our bare-bones approach to civic education. As of 2019, just nine states and Washington, D.C. require students to take at least one year of civics, while 30 require just one semester and 11 do not require civics at all.
According to a report from the Annenberg Public Policy Center, students who receive an effective civic education are more likely to vote, discuss politics at home, and volunteer in the community. These students are also, on average, more confident in their abilities to speak out and communicate with elected officials about issues they find important.
There is consensus among civic educators that the necessary components of a quality civic education include:
• classroom instruction
• discussion of current events and controversial issues
• service learning
• extracurricular activities
• student participation in school governance, and
• simulations of democratic processes and procedures.
Failure to provide an adequate civics education doesn’t just mean lower numbers of young people voting and volunteering. It opens the door for destructive groups like QAnon, believers of a conspiracy theory that claims Democrats are cabal of cannibalistic pedophiles.
States with lower levels of youth volunteering, youth voting and youth civics test scores are also more likely to have QAnon sympathizers active in politics, or politicians who oppose criticism of QAnon. (Center for American Progress)
James Madison concludes, “A popular government without popular information or the means of acquiring it is but a prologue to Farce or Tragedy or perhaps both.”
Marshall Ward is a Murray resident who is a member of the Democratic Party. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Editor’s Note: Opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect the editorial opinion of the Murray Ledger & Times.