When I was a suburban public high school student in the early 1970s, as we neared graduation (which put us at or near the newly lowered voting age of 18) we were given a several-weeks-long unit in Social Studies that covered “Civics.” We were not invited to contemplate our own roles as citizens, nor so much the history of the electoral franchise in our country, nor — as might be expected from fearful authorities after the student protests of the late 60s and early 70s — the question of citizen dissent and civil disobedience.
Our education in Civics was limited to the mechanics. How government works. The parties and the primaries. The electoral college. The checks and balances. Terms of office. How bills run through committees and then two houses of a bicameral legislature. The rights and responsibilities of the U.S. Senate versus the House of Representatives. The power of the veto, and how it might be overridden. Filibusters and other tactics. And we even received instruction in not only our state’s political structure and entities, but even right down to the elected offices in our county. Perhaps we even talked about our town council, I can’t remember.
While we had no benefit of a rich examination of our impending role as members of the body politic, at least (for those who paid attention and remembered any of it) we were prepped to recognize the various political seats that we would soon be old enough to elect candidates to fill. At least for some of us this rather dry approach to civic education whetted a curiosity to know more, to begin following the track record of incumbents and the platforms of the parties and candidates for national, state and local election.
Fast-forward 35 years, and focus 30 miles westward to New York City. No one I have ever asked who is under the age of 30 — even young people who take a natural interest in politics — recalls receiving any memorable instruction in even the mechanics of government, never mind inquiry into the rights and responsibilities of citizenship, the exercise of one’s political voice, or the State of the Union (and State and City). Even my own daughters, who attended alternative public schools that did teach “citizenship” (e.g., conflict resolution, working with others to achieve goals, earth stewardship) graduated high school at voting age with hardly a clue as to whom they were now old enough to elect, what roles those officials play in the fate of our country and city, nor what role they might play as everyday citizens in the shaping of our social history and the direction of our national and local politics.
And, both in my day and more recently, from what I have seen hardly any time is spent on classroom examination of current events. Informed and engaged citizenship requires familiarity with issues in the forefront of political discourse, with present and impending problems and opportunities, with voting records of politicians, with present-day party and candidate platforms, with the “moral divide” that so deeply affects America’s political life, and with the trending impact of laws and policies made in recent history. The vast majority of students are being graduated at voting age without a strong foundation for civic participation.
Further, seldom is any effort is put into teaching young people to embrace and exercise their own political voice, nor to understand the power of working with others to directly affect change on the local, grassroots level of society and to collectively influence change on the regional and national level. Few schools encourage broader and deeper civic engagement extending beyond voter participation.
I cannot imagine a more critical aspect of education in a society that purportedly values and truly believes in its own democratic system, than the preparation of students for being very well informed participants in the electoral process, and the guiding of students to understand and utilize their own power, and the power of the group, to demand or directly enact change.