In light of the recent government shut down and an especially polarized government, thinking about how to effectively instill civic knowledge in America’s youth is especially challenging. In the 2012 presidential election, only 10 percent of American youth between 18 and 24 met a standard of “informed engagement”. With more than half of young people not participating in the American political system, the approach to civic education must be reevaluated.
The Commission on Youth Voting and Civic Knowledge, a group of bipartisan scholars brought together by Tuft University’s Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE), released a report analyzing voting behavior and the levels of civic engagement of today’s American youth. The report highlights main concerns, goals, and recommendations towards greater engagement. It also strongly emphasizes that civic education must be a shared responsibility where students are positively impacted by those who influence them most: family, schools, peers, community groups, national media, social media, and the political system.
Peter Levine, director of CIRCLE, encapsulated the obstacles society faces in improving the level of civic knowledge today: “Teachers face an inhospitable climate for civics: tests and standards that do not reward discussing current events, considerable resistance from parents to anything touching politics, and a natural political climate that alienates young people from public life.”
Currently, only 10 states have high civic education requirements, such as requiring instructors teaching government classes to be certified in the field. Many teachers are also hesitant to engage classroom discussion and debate on controversial topics, fearing backlash from parents. It is essential that teachers are supported in their efforts to educate today’s youth in policy and government issues so that students are able to form opinions and ideas based on facts.
Levine believes that today’s youth will be the solution to current problems, “All young Americans should be informed and responsibly involved in politics and civic life, and engaging the next generation is the best long-term solution to problems of polarization, incivility, and dysfunction in national politics.” In order to stop the current trend and to prepare our youth for leadership the report makes a few recommendations that it hopes policymakers will embrace.
- 1) Lowering the voting age to 17 in municipal or state elections so that students can be encouraged to vote while they are taking a required civics class
- 2) State standards for civics that focus on developing advanced civic skills, such as deliberation and collaboration, rather than memorizing facts
- 3) Same Day Voter Registration which can improve turnout by making registration less of a barrier to voting
- 4) Policies that encourage discussion of current, controversial issues and that protect teachers’ careers when they encourage such discussion
One recommendation made in the report concerning voter ID laws is to make student IDs an acceptable form of identification. Although voting laws have been a controversial topic in the past year, the report cites that overall, voting laws decrease turnout, but otherwise have a small overall impact. Larger obstacles are creating equal opportunities for civic learning and engagement and encouraging community and family involvement.
While schools and policies have a large impact on political engagement, communities and families must be involved. The research in the report does not believe families should be required to teach civic education, but they should encourage interest in current events and political issues as well as discussion of these topics. Youth should also be encouraged to take a stand on issues and be able to support their position in these discussion and debates, especially on controversial issues. It is also critical that youth are encouraged by those in their family and community to be engaged in the political process and exercise their right to vote.
Marcie Taylor-Thoma of the Maryland State Department was cited in the report expressing that it truly takes a state to educate a child. “What happened at home and what happens on the playground, and what happens in sports and clubs, and all these other activities that kids are involved with, are part of a kid’s citizenship education.”
The reports states that since there is no fool-proof plan to improve youth engagement. “States, local governments, schools, and nonprofits must innovate and experiment more.” With little federal support in promoting change, nonprofits can be become engaged and put forth comprehensive lesson plans and programs for young people to engage in. The report suggests the formation of coalitions that advocate for the implementation of the policies discussed as well as the creation of civics tests, among other measures, that can help teachers gauge the level of student civic knowledge.
The 2012 elections showed that youth engagement is at a crisis point, and in looking towards 2016, it is necessary to engage America’s youth in the democratic process in order to ensure that youth voices are heard. A teacher surveyed for the report said civic education “is essential if we are to continue as a free democratic society. Not to educate the next generation will ensure the destruction of our American way of life as we know it.” Although the current state of government may be discouraging for America’s youth, now is the time to instill in young people that they have the ability to set the country on a better path.