Panel Urges Education To Revitalize Citizens’ Participation

By Robert Rothman — May 16, 1990 3 min read

Warning that American voters have “abdicated their role in the electoral process,” a group of educators, journalists, and politicians has called for a national education program to improve citizens’ understanding of their stake in the democratic system.

“American voters today do not seem to understand their rightful place in the operation of American democracy,” the Markle Commission on the Media and the Electorate concludes in a report issued this month.

“They act as if Presidential elections belong to somebody else,” it says, “notably Presidential candidates and their handlers.”

Robert M. O’Neil, the commission’s chairman and president of the University of Virginia, said the panel did not blame schools for this condition. But education, he said, is a crucial part of any strategy for improvement.

“An educated electorate,” the commission’s report states, “is essential to a successful democratic society.”

Mr. O’Neil said the panel was expected to meet this week to map out plans for implementing its recommendations. He said the group would seek foundation and government support to create an “American Citizens Foundation” that would develop the education program.

The report comes as a growing number of states and national groups are developing curricula and programs aimed at enhancing students’ understanding of the governmental process.

Last week, for example, the California-based Center for Civic Education held the national finals of its third annual competition on the Constitution and Bill of Rights.

The Markle Commission’s call for a national citizenship-education effort will help provide needed leadership in such undertakings, educators said last week.

“We’ve got to invest in democracy,” said Bill Honig, California’s superintendent of public instruction. “We give foreign aid to other countries; we ought to start with our own. Our young people are not connected to it.”

Frances Haley, executive director of the National Council for the Social Studies, said citizenship education alone might not be effective if the rest of society remains alienated from the democratic process.

“No matter what schools do,” she said, “if outside forces continue to act the way they do now, participation is not going to be built.”

“I’m not suggesting not doing it, or doing less,” Ms. Haley added. “But there is a question whether the school experience does or does not connect kids to the political process.”

‘Citizen as the Problem’

Formed in 1988 by the John and Mary R. Markle Foundation, the commission was charged with analyzing the news media and political education with an eye toward improving the media’s performance and enhancing citizen involvement.

In addition to Mr. O’Neil, the commission included James David Barber, professor of political science at Duke University; former Senator John C. Culver of Iowa; Joan Konner, dean of the graduate school of journalism at Columbia University; former Senator Charles McC. Mathias of Maryland; Eugene Patterson, former chairman of the board of the Times Publishing Company of St. Petersburg, Fla.; and Eddie N. Williams, president of the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies Inc.

Although the panel expected primarily to evaluate the performance of the news media, said Mr. O’Neil, “we came increasingly to focus on the citizen as the problem.”

For example, the report notes, not only were citizens uninformed about candidates and issues, they also exhibited “a seeming lack of concern about their own ignorance.”

It concludes, however, that “the American public still carries a latent readiness to respond to calls for revitalized participation in the political process.”

Kenneth Wade, chief of the social-studies bureau in the New York State Department of Education, said that state’s two-year-old required course in participation in government--the only such required course in the country--has already yielded increases in political participation.

The commission’s report, “Electing a President,” is expected to be published in 1991 by the University of Texas Press.

A version of this article appeared in the May 16, 1990 edition of Education Week as Panel Urges Education To Revitalize Citizens’ Participation