The lackluster performance of students on the civics portion of the National Assessment of Educational Progress in 2006 and 2010 has prompted states to demand evidence that schools are preparing graduates for their responsibilities as citizens (“Civics Instruction Moves Up in Class,” The Wall Street Journal, Dec. 27). This is welcome news at a time when only about one in five adults between 18 and 29 voted in the 2014 midterm elections.
But before celebrating, I think it’s important to take a closer look at the assumptions behind the civics movement. The most important is that greater knowledge of how the democratic process works will translate into greater civic participation. That’s debatable. As long as elected officials are permitted by law to accept financial contributions from special-interest groups, they will be beholden to them. That makes a mockery of the democratic process.
I maintain that low voter turnout is the direct result of this cynicism. Why bother to vote if the money trail is predictive of how most elected officials will act? Increased civics instruction may help change that attitude in some, but young adults are not stupid. They’ve seen how their own lives have been negatively affected by the slow disappearance of the middle class. Most young adults will never be able to retire unless they hit the lottery or inherit money. Protests have achieved little or nothing to reverse this trend.
There will always be a small percentage of voters who believe in fighting the good fight. But I see little evidence that young adults have the same commitment and idealism that their Vietnam-era counterparts did. I understand why. They know their history. So yes, by all means let’s make civics an important part of the high-school curriculum. But at the same time, let’s be realistic about what it can achieve.
The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner’s Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.