Social Studies Opinion

Making Citizens Out of Students

By Thomas Martin & Scott Richardson — May 07, 2003 8 min read
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After toppling Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq, our military has been charged with helping rebuild a society reeling from oppression and destruction into a prospering democracy. Soldiers trained to defend our nation are now restoring law and order in a foreign land.

We cannot build abroad what we don't sustain at home.

Many marines—only in their 20s—find themselves in the middle of very real-life civic lessons, acting as “mayors” for cities around Iraq as described in news articles just after the United States declared victory in April. It is highly unlikely these soldiers have been prepared to build democratic institutions in another nation, judging by the overall levels of civic knowledge and engagement among Americans under the age of 30.

Today’s young people are increasingly disengaged from our systems of government. A majority of young Americans do not vote or work to influence public policy—from signing a petition to writing a letter to the editor—in any way, according to a recent report from the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, or CIRCLE, at the University of Maryland. The center’s report shows that younger generations are avoiding political involvement in historically unprecedented ways.

This is not to say that young people do not care about their country. On the contrary, the young men and women in Iraq cared enough to risk their lives. Here at home, other young people are out volunteering for their communities at rates far greater than those of older generations. They report high levels of satisfaction from seeing the immediate and tangible results of their actions. Their involvement stops, however, when they fail to understand how what they do has an effect on the issues they care about. Young people do not get involved in our democratic institutions because they see their actions—even an action as simple as voting—as pointless.

The political-apathy trend cannot be written off as a phenomenon that will correct itself as today’s youths get older. The research suggests that these young adults are likely to stay away from deeper forms of civic engagement throughout their lives. The good news is that the way to increase participation in democratic processes is quite clear: Improve civic education.

At a February summit, CIRCLE and the Carnegie Corporation of New York unveiled recommendations from nearly 60 scholars and educators on how to improve civic education. The report found that today’s young people take one class in civics on average, compared with the average three classes taken in the 1970s. In addition to increasing the quantity of material taught in civics, history, and government, the report—titled “The Civic Mission of Schools”offers concrete recommendations on improving the quality of civic education. Such recommendations include:

  • Incorporating discussions of current events into the classroom, particularly those that young people view as important and relevant to their lives;
  • Engaging students in school governance; and
  • Providing simulations of democratic processes, such as voting in mock elections.

Most importantly, many of the recommendations focus on providing young people with opportunities to participate in community activities that they care about in a way that reinforces civic lessons taught in the classroom.

Learning civics by “doing” civics is the most effective way students can internalize the lessons of citizenship beyond volunteering. In its publication How People Learn, the National Research Council found that “learners of all ages are more motivated when they can see the usefulness of what they are learning and when they can use that information to do something that has an impact on others—especially their local community.”

Such active learning experiences are too rare in today’s schools, and students are suffering as a result. Findings from both CIRCLE and another recent report from Boston University indicate that most students leave school with little understanding of how to apply any knowledge they have of civics to real-life situations. These findings are similar to the U.S. Department of Education’s 1999 Civic Report Card, which found students sorely lacking in civic knowledge and know-how.

Despite the clear need to make civic learning more dynamic, the idea of schools’ giving students practical experience in citizenship has its staunch critics. In a review of “The Civic Mission of Schools” for the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, Chester E. Finn Jr., the foundation’s president and a former assistant U.S. secretary of education, took particular offense at the recommendation that schools should involve students in political activity.

This kind of criticism is off base. Schools have already increased youth involvement in nonpolitical activities through volunteering. The increase in youth volunteerism has happened as school volunteer requirements and service- learning programs have increased in the past 10 years. The success schools have seen in engaging students in community service can be a model for more actively engaging young people in meaningful civic service, including political activity.

Learning civics by ‘doing’ civics is the most effective way students can internalize the lessons of citizenship beyond volunteering.

Today, many service-learning projects often come in the form of short, one- day activities like cleaning up a park. Instead of ending a project when the park is clean, teachers should encourage students to address a public policy or community practice that would keep the park clean for the long term. The students at Oregon’s Morey Middle School did just that last school year. After cleaning up Sunrise Park in Troutdale, Ore., the 6th grade class worked with the Troutdale City Council to improve park maintenance. Their efforts ensured the park would be a clean community resource well into the future. The students also conducted an educational campaign at area schools that resulted in a significant decrease in vandalism and litter in the park. They walked away from the experience understanding how to interact with their elected officials and shape public policy. They also had a profound sense of accomplishment to reinforce the lessons learned.

Despite the obvious success of a project like this, critics such as Mr. Finn object to these kinds of learning experiences. In his review, he found “interdisciplinary instruction, cooperative learning, and student- focused techniques” to be “questionable suggestions.” The fear here seems to be that involving students in public policy gives schools and educators the opportunity to impose their own agendas on students. As “The Civic Mission of Schools” points out, however, teachers “risk criticism or sanctions” by broaching controversial topics in class. Many avoid trouble by simply refusing to address controversial issues at all. Of course, this uninspired type of teaching is exactly why younger generations are walking away from school lacking the skills and knowledge to be effective citizens in the first place.

If we want young people to be involved in all aspects of civic life, our education system must do more than accept public policy and political debates in classrooms—it must embrace them. Controversy engages students and gives them the opportunity to form their opinions by analyzing materials from a variety of perspectives. Allowing multiple viewpoints in the classroom allows students to develop critical-thinking skills and form their own opinions. It needs to be understood that the objective here is to teach students how to think about current issues, not what point of view they should adopt.

Improving civic education is no small task. To be successful, educators at all grade levels will need quality curricula and training, as well as the support of administrators, parents, and the community.

It is important that hands-on, age-appropriate civic education be an integral part of the curriculum, from 1st grade on. Middle school is a particularly important time to involve young people in civics because it is when their interest in community involvement is at its highest. Many adults might be surprised to see that young people have their own ideas and fresh perspectives to bring to these issues when given the opportunity to be part of the debate. The National Middle School Association expressly endorses this type of learning.

The success schools have seen in engaging students in community service can be a model for more actively engaging young people in meaningful civic service, including political activity.

The federal Corporation for National and Community Service could play an important role in providing materials, training, and support for educators. The Bush administration has supported efforts to promote more meaningful citizenship experiences in school through the corporation, calling for “a new culture of citizenship, service, and responsibility” in schools. Such plans were hindered when Congress denied increased funding for the corporation and its Learn and Serve program. Congressional leaders can correct this wrong in the fiscal 2004 budget. By doing so, they would allow the Corporation for National and Community Service to expand its mission to improve civic education and invest young people in citizenship.

As a nation dealing with serious international crises, many might argue that improving civic education is not a high priority right now. On the contrary, examining our ability to implement democracy in our own country is never more important than when we are on a mission to build a new democracy in a foreign nation. We cannot expect any of our citizens, military or civilian, to help build democracy in another country if our schools do not prepare them to be effective citizens at home.

Thomas Martin, a member of the panel that wrote “The Civic Mission of Schools,” is the president of Earth Force, a national organization founded by the Pew Charitable Trusts in 1993 that fosters active citizenship among young people through programs that enable them to seek solutions to environmental problems. He can be reached at tmartin@earthforce.org. Scott Richardson is the director of research and design at Earth Force and serves as the chairman of the curriculum committee for the National Council for the Social Studies.

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