Civic Apathy: Who Cares?

A Story Lost in Scandal Coverage

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A startling indictment of American democracy appeared recently in the pages of nearly every newspaper in the country, only to disappear shortly thereafter in a media maelstrom surrounding Monica Lewinsky. There was no national debate, no opportunity for public education. America was faced with the ultimate question: What if you created a democracy and nobody came? Only a few people seemed to care about the answer.

According to a mammoth survey of more than 252,000 college freshmen last fall, conducted annually by the University of California-Los Angeles, this year's freshman class demonstrated the lowest levels of political interest in the 32-year history of the survey. Apparently, America's young people don't want to be involved in our most important national treasure. As a civic educator for 27 years, such news dismays me, but I also know there are solutions worth consideration.

Only 26.7 percent of today's freshmen believe that keeping up to date with political affairs is an important goal in life--compared with 40 percent in 1990, and 57.8 percent in 1966. Only 17 percent are interested in influencing the political structure. "These trends are part of a larger pattern of disengagement of the American people from political and civic life in general," says Alexander W. Astin, a UCLA professor and founding director of the study. It's a pattern our nation can and must reverse. But how?

First, let's get civics beyond the classroom. Studies show that students think civics courses are boring and rank as their least favorite classes. But it's one thing to learn about citizenship; it's another thing to actually be a citizen. Young people deserve a chance to do both. Students must be given the opportunity to witness their government at work, discuss issues with elected officials, and take action to shape public policy--that's how to create good citizens. Educators call this approach experiential learning. I know from experience that it works. For almost three decades, I've watched about a half-million students and teachers from all across the country come to the nation's capital to study government up close. I've seen them gain a sense of civic efficacy as they learn how to participate in the political system--and then do it.

In just one example, high school students from Arizona, a few years ago, noticed that the Lincoln Memorial contained no mention of Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech. Working with the National Park Service, these students went home to Arizona and began a national campaign, involving 2 million young people, that created a visitors' center within the Lincoln Memorial to commemorate the civil rights movement. Take a look at "The Lincoln Legacy" when you wonder if young people really want to be active citizens.

What happens when cynicism becomes the prevailing attitude, and we lose faith in ourselves?

A second way to increase civic engagement is to start early. In fact, educators believe that the most crucial time to shape young people's values is in middle school. Habits of citizenship developed then have a good chance of lasting a lifetime. A national civic-achievement program for middle school students enrolled more than 2.4 million students from 1988 to 1992--all of whom worked on civic projects in their communities in addition to mastering academic content. Their projects ranged from producing a home-safety video for the Red Cross to drafting a bill, later enacted by the state legislature, giving school credit for community service. But all of them learned that citizenship is something you do, not just read about.

Third, government must be involved in the solution. It's amazing to me just how many students and even some teachers don't realize, when they come to Washington, that congressional hearings and Supreme Court arguments are open to the public. This fundamental fact, that citizens have access to their government, is not being effectively communicated to the American people. It is government's responsibility to do so, not just by opening the doors but by actively bringing people in. Students should have an opportunity to witness their government at work--at a local school board, or city council meeting, or sessions of the state legislature, or Congress.

American education is currently focused on the standards movement, setting criteria for academic content in the curriculum and subsequent performance by students. Unfortunately, civics-- which involves human behavior--is not as quantifiable as science and math. In the demand for standards, we must not overlook active learning strategies for training young people to become citizens, any more than we would expect them to be able to drive after just taking a written test.

It's fashionably cynical--and to some extent historically American--to criticize the government and scoff at elected officials. But what happens when cynicism becomes the prevailing attitude, and we lose faith in ourselves? The late Brooks Hays, a dear friend and former U.S. representative from Arkansas, often told a story in which he asked one of his oldest constituents if she had voted on Election Day. "Oh Mr. Hays," she replied, "I never vote. It just encourages 'em." What does "it just encourages 'em" really mean? It means that civics is an inherently contradictory discipline that provides some sharply confusing messages to all of us, particularly impressionable young people. Students are urged to participate, get involved, be active citizens. But the dinnertime conversation at home and the constant deluge of media messages speak disparagingly of the frailties and failures of public servants and a system which tilts toward access to money.

The common link in these messages is that government is about people--the downside being that people are not a science, people are imperfect. The upside, of course, is also the strongest link, the one that really needs to be stressed. People can also make a difference if they participate--if they get involved. Young people sense and learn this principle well through hands-on experiential opportunities in citizenship education. They learn that they are 'em--and that 'em is all of us.

Vol. 17, Issue 27, Page 47

Published in Print: March 18, 1998, as Civic Apathy: Who Cares?
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