With new sessions of Congress and the U.S. Supreme Court under way and a presidential election on the not-too-distant horizon, I am once again reminded of the shocking statistic that only 36 percent of Americans can name all three branches of the federal government.
If we want this to change, we need to begin with our young people. And the path to getting our nation’s youths to become more fully educated and engaged citizens begins—but doesn’t end—in the classroom.
With decreased investments in civics education, growing feelings of disillusionment, and frustration with an increasingly polarized political system, young people tune out politics—much like the public at large. The late U.S. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts believed that increasing knowledge and understanding of the nation’s government and civic history was a way to inspire America’s young people and tap into their full potential, and to build a less divided, more participatory and productive democracy for tomorrow.
Sen. Kennedy’s vision to create a place where this can happen will become a reality when the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the United States Senate opens its doors to the public March 31, on the University of Massachusetts’ Boston campus. The institute will teach students in an engaging, dynamic, and empowering way about our system of government, the Senate’s unique role in the nation’s history, and the work of those who have devoted their careers to public service. Its centerpiece is a full-scale representation of the U.S. Senate chamber, where students can use technology to enhance an active learning process in which they take on the simulated role of senators. They will use modules developed by leading educational software and video-game designers, with input from local high school and middle school teachers and university educators. Students will have the opportunity to draft, debate, and vote on historic legislation such as the Compromise of 1850, and more modern issues such as civil rights and immigration.
Sen. Kennedy passionately believed the institute could offer a unique and exciting experiential approach to civic engagement for educators and policymakers committed to reversing some discouraging statistics. A recent poll conducted by the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania found, for example, that more than one-third of Americans couldn’t name a single branch of our government. Meanwhile, the millennial generation lags behind in voter turnout, engagement in the political process, and knowledge of basic U.S. history. Currently, just 10 percent of high school seniors are proficient in U.S. history, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. In civics, only a quarter of U.S. students scored proficient or better on the nation’s report card, the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP.
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It is wrong, however, to assume that millennials are reluctant to make significant contributions to the public good. These young people are at least as involved in volunteer activities as their predecessors, and for the right reasons: According to the 2013 Millennial Impact Report, 73 percent of millennials interviewed had volunteered for a nonprofit organization the previous year, and nearly four out of five of those volunteers said they did so because of their passion for the cause.
The challenge, then, is how to translate this generation’s clear desire to do good and make a difference in society into the heightened levels of civic and political engagement so desperately needed in our democracy.
Yes, the classroom is the place to start. In-school civic education opportunities—ranging from social studies classes, to simulations of democratic processes, to discussions of current issues—have been shown to increase the likelihood that a young person will vote, according to the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement. But these civic education opportunities are more likely to be found in schools with greater wealth or a larger white student population, and we know many students still experience lecture-style classes and unimaginative textbooks that fail to excite them about the joys of active citizenship.
To deeply engage young people in the power of democracy and help them better understand their role in shaping public policies that improve the lives of others, we must do more.”
To deeply engage young people in the power of democracy and help them better understand their role in shaping public policies that improve the lives of others, we must do more. They have to experience lively and meaningful civic-engagement opportunities both inside and outside of school, where they can, in the words of the Annenberg Center’s report, “work effectively together as partners, allowing opportunities for youth to take ownership of parts of the process, mobilize others, and become powerful role models.”
Educators and parents can make these opportunities even more exciting by tapping into millennials’ close familiarity with and love of social media, video games, and other forms of interactive technology. For example, the Washington-based Newseum’s Digital Classroom is a free online resource with primary sources, fun activities, videos, and lesson plans that bring history, journalism, and the First Amendment to life for students. The nonprofit organization iCivics, founded and led by former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, prepares young Americans to become knowledgeable and active 21st-century citizens through free, Web-based interactive games, lesson plans, and other teaching materials used in classrooms in all 50 states, by more than 3 million students and 40,000 educators. Students are given different civic roles and tasked with addressing real-world problems and issues in topical curriculum areas aligned to state and federal standards.
The Edward M. Kennedy Institute similarly uses interactive technology to create high-quality and engaging learning opportunities for students and educators. Teachers and college faculty members are already test-driving our simulations with their classes, and other educators who would like to bring their classes in will be able to participate in this unique experience after we open later this month.
In combining modern technology with engaging content, innovative educational tools such as these will help reignite students’ passion for history and democracy, reinvigorate our public discourse, and above all inspire a next generation of leaders to build a better tomorrow. Instead of waiting for our young people to embrace full-scale civic and political participation on their own, we adults need to take advantage of their love of community service and hands-on, technology-enhanced learning and create interactive learning opportunities that give them the tools and drive to become more involved.
A version of this article appeared in the March 18, 2015 edition of Education Week as Getting Millennials Engaged in Civic Life