Civics Alliance Forms To Combat Youths’ Political Apathy, Cynicism

By David J. Hoff — May 17, 2000 3 min read
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A coalition of education groups convened by a former presidential aide is setting out to improve civics education in the schools.

Thirty-six organizations representing educators, politicians, and public-policy experts announced last week that they were forming the National Alliance for Civics Education in an attempt to reverse what they see as teenagers’ growing apathy and cynicism toward government.

“Numerous recent surveys point to a common conclusion: Americans believe that we are economically prosperous but civically impoverished,” said William A. Galston, a professor of public affairs at the University of Maryland College Park and a former domestic-policy adviser to President Clinton.

“Here’s what is less well-known: Americans overwhelmingly believe that an intensified focus on the civic education of young people is an essential part of the response to this situation,” Mr. Galston added at a press conference announcing the new partnership here last week.

Mr. Galston, who also is advising Vice President Al Gore’s presidential campaign, assembled the coalition, which includes the American Federation of Teachers, the National 4-H Council, and the Council for Basic Education, as well as almost 50 individuals.

William A. Galston

They include university presidents, professors, and philanthropic leaders.

“There is gathering momentum around the country for civic education,” Karl T. Kurtz, the director of state services for the National Council of State Legislatures, said in an interview. Leaders are beginning to recognize the “negative consequences of cynicism and distrust” and are searching for ways to overcome them, said Mr. Kurtz, whose organization is a member of the alliance.

Political Ignorance

The problem is especially acute among young people, organizers say. Men and women between the ages of 18 and 24 are voting less frequently, are more suspicious of government officials, and less interested in politics than were previous generations at that age, said Michael Delli Carpini, the director of the public-policy program for the Pew Charitable Trusts, the Philadelphia-based foundation that is underwriting the civics education alliance.

What’s more, many students don’t understand basic details of government and politics. Last fall, the National Assessment of Educational Progress reported that only about 20 percent of U.S. students scored at the “proficient” level on its civics test. Roughly one-third of the sample fell below the “basic” level. (“Beyond Basics, Civics Eludes U.S. Students,” Nov. 24, 1999.) The way to reverse the trend, Mr. Galston says, is through the public schools.

Though the alliance is still setting its agenda, organizers say it will be committed to raising the time devoted to civics study in schools, increasing the amount of training in the subject for new and current teachers, and evaluating civics education to advise teachers on the materials they’ll need for high-quality classes.

“One of our first orders of business will be to reach out to states, with particular emphasis on states that say little or nothing about civic education,” Mr. Galston said.

The alliance also will be encouraging its members to participate in school programs.

Back-to-School Day

In addition to joining the new alliance, the Denver-based NCSL plans to launch its own effort to connect legislators with classrooms on Sept. 15.

The goal of “America’s Legislators Back-to-School Day” is for most of the nation’s 7,400 state lawmakers to visit classrooms to explain how the political process works and how students can participate in it, Mr. Kurtz said.

“One of the things we’re trying to project is that civic engagement is more than going out to vote,” he said. “We need to provide some orientation and perspective.”

The legislators will bring a message that a representative democracy requires that people with a variety of opinions need to compromise, and that people shouldn’t take an all-or-nothing approach to public policy.

Mr. Kurtz said he hopes the program may eventually lead to sustained contact between specific legislators and students, leading to real-life experiences in which students learn how the political process works.

Mr. Galston said one of the primary goals of the new alliance would be to evaluate programs such as the NCSL’s and publicize those that are most successful.

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A version of this article appeared in the May 17, 2000 edition of Education Week as Civics Alliance Forms To Combat Youths’ Political Apathy, Cynicism


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