Friday, February 1, 2008

If by chance you have visited a presidential campaign headquarters, you might have noticed one of the more striking aspects of the various campaigns: how young their foot-soldiers are. You see them in the background at campaign headquarters, or standing alongside the wall at a debate or rally, or accompanying candidates out on the stump.

Young people — college students, those not long out of college, even some high-school students — play a central role in the behind-the-scenes work of a presidential campaign because, apart from the candidates, only the young have the energy for the exhausting hours that must be put into a campaign at this level.

I can’t help contrasting this picture with what I’ve often seen when sitting on the stage at some local political event and looking out at the crowd: mostly older people. The fact is at the local and state levels the people who make the political system work are getting older.

The parties’ precinct committee chairs, the poll workers, the election judges, the convention delegates, those who fill the chairs at political functions — in short, the people who oil the machinery of a representative democracy — are for the most part middle-aged or beyond. I hope you’ll understand I’m not being ageist when I say this is not a healthy state of affairs.

Our system depends for its vitality on a continuous stream of young people getting involved in it, and not just in presidential election years. It’s not simply the mechanics of politics that benefits from energy, new blood and fresh perspectives; it’s democracy itself.

Our civic life cannot be whole if the ideas and perspectives of students and young adults are missing from political campaigns, or from grassroots efforts to change a policy or get a new traffic light, or from the boards and commissions that oversee various aspects of community affairs.

Just as important, young people who don’t take part in politics are missing a vital education in the complexities of their communities and in how to develop the skills that a vibrant democracy demands from its citizens.

As a society we’re not especially good at encouraging young people to become involved in political life. Anne Colby, a senior scholar at the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching who has studied the political engagement of students at colleges and universities around the country, found they are much likelier to be involved in community service efforts than in politics.

This may be, she argues, because that’s what they know. In high school and college, she notes, students “are offered a great wealth of opportunities to do community service but they perceive very few opportunities and little encouragement to become politically involved.” The result is that politics seems like foreign territory, while community service “has become almost as familiar as going to school.”

It is good that students in high school and beyond are shown how to contribute to their communities. And I certainly can understand why teachers might be reluctant to encourage students to become involved in the potentially controversial work of backing a political candidate or cause. It is far safer to direct someone to go help out the local food bank than, say, the Democratic or Republican candidate for Congress.

Yet if we define “contribute to the community” narrowly, leaving out politics, we deprive our students of exposure to the issues and mechanisms that drive the nation’s political life, as well as the diversity of people and communities that politics would encourage them to meet.

Moreover, as elementary and middle schools de-emphasize social studies in their efforts to meet federal and state testing requirements in math, reading and writing, you have to wonder how students will get the education in democracy that buttresses their ability to participate as adults in our democracy. As former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor and former Colorado Gov. Roy Romer put it in a 2006 op-ed column: “Most young people today simply do not have an adequate understanding of how our government and political system work, and they are thus not well prepared to participate as citizens.”

There are some ambitious efforts to counter this state of affairs. As part of our work at the Center on Congress, we partner with the Center for Civic Education and the National Conference of State Legislatures to promote a sustained commitment to civics instruction from kindergarten through college. Justice O’Connor is spearheading a program to teach middle-school students about the judiciary and government in general.

Former Rep. Abner Mikva has created a program giving students in the Chicago Public Schools a chance to volunteer for political campaigns, work as election judges at polling places, learn how to advocate for policy change and develop leadership skills on issues affecting their own schools.

And election officials across the country are backing state efforts to lower the minimum age for poll workers to 16, which would give young people a firsthand view of how elections run while tapping their technology expertise.

As creative and vital as these and other projects may be, the vacuum they’re trying to address is enormous. We need a cultural change in our schools and our communities that sees an adequate civic education as every bit as important as math and reading, and that encourages students to participate in the everyday life of our political system. There is no better way to ensure that our democracy remains healthy from one generation to the next.

Lee H. Hamilton is director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.

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