- The Washington Times - Monday, November 3, 2008


Missing from Secretary of State Colin Powell’s endorsement of Sen. Barack Obama on NBC’s “Meet The Press” was a question on whether he knows why so many of America‘s 18- to 29-year-olds still do not vote, thereby discarding the quintessential privilege and responsibility of being an active American.

On Super Tuesday (Feb. 5), when 24 states held primaries or caucuses, 79 percent of the young voters that day had attended some college, thereby demonstrating that a disproportionate percentage of other eligible young voters had stayed away. This low participation of young Americans who did not attend college underlines the failure of our school system to prepare these students for citizenship.

When I was a kid in school long ago, there were civics classes showing us through vivid examples in our history how voters can help determine much of what happens in our daily lives, and especially in times of national crisis, by who they choose to represent them. That’s how many of us back then gained a very personal interest both in our history and the battlefields of current events.

Now, a lamentable effect of the No Child Left Behind Act is that civics classes are absent in many schools that feel bound to keep testing and retesting on subjects whose students’ scores determine the school’s status, or even its continued existence.

A basic source of information on how well students are learning how to be an organic, lifelong part of discovering why we are the oldest free nation on the globe - despite murderous threats from abroad and even a terribly costly Civil War - is Circle: The Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at Tufts University in Medford, Mass. Its director, Peter Levine, makes a crucial point overlooked in our celebration of the rising number of young voters without our realizing that they are disproportionately college-educated.

Says Mr. Levine: “Campaigns and interest groups mobilize youth on college campuses, but it’s harder to reach non-college youth. … Research shows that schools can boost young people’s participation by providing … social studies classes, service opportunities, discussions of current events and other activities.” But, a Circle report adds, school systems around the nation provide more opportunities to learn about, and then participate in, our constitutional system of self-government “to higher income students, white students and academically successful students.”

Once, in Miami, I was asked to speak to a large number of high school students in connection with my book “Living the Bill of Rights.” Before I went on stage, two teachers told me not to be disappointed at the youngsters’ lack of interest because “all they care about are music and clothes.” After an hour of telling them stories about how we Americans won and then fought to preserve our First Amendment rights and the right of blacks and women to vote, as well as the essential checks and balances in our government to keep us free citizens, I got a standing ovation - not because I was so eloquent but because these youngsters had discovered America.

Where we are now is described in a recent Circle working paper by two very concerned educators and researchers at Mills College in Oakland, Calif., Joseph Kahne and Ellen Middaugh of that school’s Civic Engagement Research Group. They found, says Circle, that “students in higher-income districts are up to twice as likely as those from average-income districts to learn how laws are made and how Congress works, for instance … African-American students are less likely than white students to have civic-focused government classes and current-events discussions.” There is much more research at Circle and at Mills College documenting how “schools are exacerbating inequality in voting when they could be narrowing the gap.”

The solution is elementary, says Mr. Kahne. Since school systems below college “reach a broader section of youth than colleges (it follows that) if they provide quality civic learning opportunities to all students, they can promote more equal participations” in the very process of democracy.

In “Phi Delta Kappan,” the professional journal for education, Mr. Kahne and Joel Westheimer issued a call for action to parents, educators and school boards: “At the same time that lobbyists are spending hundreds of millions of dollars, many ordinary citizens are passive and apathetic when it comes to major issues that affect their lives …

“Improving society requires making democracy work. And making democracy work requires that schools take this goal seriously: to educate and nurture engaged and informed democratic citizens.” Transcending political parties and focusing on basic civic education, let us all - parents, educators, school boards and students - go to it. The most enthusiastic audience I’ve ever had in discussing the stories of the tumultuous history of the Bill of Rights was a fifth-grade public school class.

Nat Hentoff’s column for The Washington Times appears on Mondays.

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Manage Newsletters

Copyright © 2021 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

Please read our comment policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide