In the 2012 election, only 50% of the youth voting bloc, Americans aged 18-29, turned out to cast their vote. That means 23 million young people did not participate, either because they were unable to make it to the polls, or by choice.
Low voter participation is a manifestation of political dysfunction. From an increasingly toxic influence of money in politics, to the sluggish speed at which our government legislates, to the apparent erosion, even within the highest levels of government, of respect for the Constitution—it is clear that the U.S. political system is not working for many of the millions of individuals it stands to represent.
But from where do these problems arise?
A root cause, and I define “root” as a problem that begets many other more serious problems, lies in our country’s de-emphasis and devaluation of civic education within our public schools.
Once prioritized by our leaders and legislators, civic education is now perceived as expendable. We’ve come to view standardized test preparation and international math rankings as more critically concerning than allocating time to teach democratic engagement.
The sad irony lies in that the original founders of public education saw public schools as precisely the place to cultivate conscientious, critical citizens. Thomas Jefferson, Horace Mann and John Dewey all believed that an educated citizenry was indispensible to a healthy and functional democracy. They recognized that to have a nation of ignorant citizens would render individuals incapable of electing good leaders or voting out of office those who abused their power. Horace Mann wrote in 1873, “Education is our only political safety. Outside of this ark all is deluge.” Jefferson in 1824 wrote, “The qualifications for self-government in society are not innate. They are the result of habit and long training.”
Until the 1960s, three types of courses in civics and government were common in American schools. Two of these courses, commonly known as “Civics” and “Problems of Democracy”, explored the role of citizens and encouraged students to discuss current issues. Those types of courses are rare today. The only course still typically offered in American public schools is “American Government,” which describes the institutions of government with scant reference to the role of citizens in making those institutions work.
The resulting deficit in civic engagement extends beyond low voting turnout. For example, as reported by the Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools, between 1973 and 1994, the number of people who served as an officer of a club or organization, worked for a political party, served on a committee, or attended a public meeting on town or school affairs declined by over 35%.
African Americans and Hispanic students are twice as likely as their white counterparts to score below proficient on national civics assessments. A similar civic knowledge gap exists between America’s poorest and wealthiest students.
Lack of knowledge translates into lack of participation. Families that earn more than $75,000 per year, when compared to families that make less than $15,000 per year, are twice as likely to vote and six times as likely to be active in the political process.
These disparities in knowledge and involvement do not result from inherent differences in aptitude or interest. They are the result of a public education system which affords far fewer and lower quality civic learning opportunities to minority and low-income students.
Let me be clear: there has never been a “golden age” of political participation in the U.S. political system. Throughout most of our country’s history, over half of all U.S. citizens were denied the right to vote. Nonetheless, I reject the notion that our democratic system is flawed in its essential design.
Increased emphasis on civic education, while not the sole solution to our political malaise, is surely a consequential one. If we want more U.S citizens to participate in democratic life– to run for elected office, to write op-eds, to join civic organizations, to work on campaigns, to lobby their elected officials—in sum, to do all the messy, hard, tiring work that is self-government, then we must teach our kids that political participation is fundamentally important.
We need to prioritize civic learning with the same urgency and conviction that our leaders speak about STEM education. It is only then will we see people vote in higher numbers, people join advocacy organizations, and people hold their government leaders accountable.
If we want to see a more equitable and effective political system, then we should start by revisiting our civic education policies.