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Social Studies Opinion

An Argument to Engage Students In the Political Process

By Robert Dallek — October 30, 2006 4 min read
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Bringing the country's democratic traditions into the classroom is as worthy a mission as anything any of us who instruct students do.

Young Americans are notoriously indifferent to political participation. Where only about half the electorate turns out to vote in presidential elections, the percentage of those between the ages of 18 and 30 who go to the polls is significantly smaller. State, county, and local elections command even less attention. In a recent Democratic Party primary for a U.S. Senate nomination in Virginia, for example, just 4 percent of eligible voters cast ballots. One can only imagine how few young people were part of that shrunken group.

Voting in America is seen not as a privilege, but a right that is taken for granted and only exercised by young people when some issue strikes them as directly touching their lives. And such topics of concern are few: Taxes, Social Security, and health insurance, for example, seem of little consequence to teenagers and 20-somethings still in school and on the family payroll. Questions of military service can get the attention of young people, but then only males—it has not been a matter of concern to women, who have traditionally been excluded from selective service. With a volunteer military since the 1970s, recent generations of first-time voters see little reason to worry about elected officials’ passing conscription measures. Not even the Iraq war has brought the possibility of required military service back into focus.

So, is there any way to educate youngsters to see voting as a civic responsibility they should take seriously? Short of mandatory voting, which is a feature of Australian democracy, for example, prospects for a new era of heightened voter participation by young people seem bleak.

Despite this, I believe that educators across America—at all levels between kindergarten and 12th grade—can press the case for wider involvement in the country’s democratic processes with the hope of making a difference.

Rigorous student-election processes for class and schoolwide officers can get youngsters more involved. Every school has issues that are of greater importance to students than those the general electorate faces in periodic elections. Everything from dress codes to team sports and after-school activities genuinely interests students. An early recognition that they can institutionalize their preferences through open discussions and voting is an advance in the effort to educate young people to the virtues of democracy and the power of the ballot box.

These are powerful tools for reminding students that our freedoms—of speech, press, assembly, and to vote—are not universally available; that, in fact, Americans are privileged citizens of the world who should never take their rights for granted.

As a professional historian, I am biased about the usefulness of U.S. history classes in stimulating student interest in the country’s political institutions. Discussions about early American history, the Revolution, battles over the Articles of Confederation, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights can be salutary in promoting student awareness of the cost in blood and treasure to secure what young people now take for granted. There is an even more compelling lesson in the blood shed to protect traditional freedoms against authoritarianism during World Wars I and II and the Cold War. There is an equally instructive example in the country’s internal struggles to expand traditional freedoms to African-Americans: first, through a Civil War that ended slavery, and then through a civil rights movement in which people lost their lives to overcome racism and assure equal opportunity for all Americans, regardless of race or gender. Surely, such a recounting of the national experience can inspire young people not to be casual about traditional rights and to perform their civic duty and vote.

I think that certain national holidays, such as Presidents’ Day, Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Memorial Day, Veterans’ Day, and Thanksgiving, are also useful devices for compelling attention to the country’s democratic traditions. The great events of the 20th century, in which repressive systems of governance, particularly Nazism and Communism, perpetrated such crimes against humanity as the Holocaust can stand as object lessons in any effort to show youngsters that liberty and the rule of law are sacred doctrines worthy of study and defense. These are powerful tools for reminding students that our freedoms—of speech, press, assembly, and to vote—are not universally available; that, in fact, Americans are privileged citizens of the world who should never take their rights for granted.

Finally, I believe there is no substitute for bringing elected officials—school board members, city council members, county sheriffs, state legislators, judges—into civics and social studies classes to discuss the thought process of running for, and the experience of serving in, elected office. It is instructive because it gives students a glimpse of what public officials do, and underscores why it is important to vote for honest, effective public servants.

I am certain that teachers in every grade and discipline can find ways to bring the country’s democratic traditions into the classroom. It is as worthy a mission as anything any of us who instruct students do. There should be state and national awards for teachers who are best at creating a sense of civic responsibility among the country’s young people. Foundations should be encouraged to promote such awards and provide prize money to those who win them. No task is more crucial to a democracy than ensuring that democratic processes are passed on to new generations.

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A version of this article appeared in the November 01, 2006 edition of Education Week as An Argument to Engage Students In the Political Process

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