BRIA 25 2 Every New Generation

Bill of Rights in Action
FALL 2009 (Volume 25, No. 2)

Building Democracy

The Major Debates at the Constitutional Convention  |  King and Parliament in Medieval England Every New Generation

Every New Generation

For a representative democratic system of government to work, citizens must be engaged. They must vote, be informed about issues, participate on juries, make their voices heard, and be willing to defend the Constitution. People are not born with these abilities. For this reason, the founders of this country believed that each new generation of Americans needed to be educated to become effective citizens. How are we doing with today’s generation of young people? Are they prepared to be the citizens and leaders of tomorrow’s America?

The founders of our country—George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, and James Madison—all believed in education. They realized that each new generation would need to understand the principles of liberty and republican government. They also wanted to make sure that future Americans would know about their rights. And be prepared to fight for them, if necessary.

As early as 1779, Thomas Jefferson had authored a bill in Virginia proposing a system of public education and requiring that history be studied by all citizens. In 1806, he proposed a constitutional amendment to Congress to empower the federal government to support education. In 1817, he proposed a system of free public education in Virginia and the establishment of a state university.

All of these attempts met with failure, except the last. The Virginia legislature decided that a public education system would cost too much. But it did vote to establish a university. In 1818, Jefferson was appointed to the commission to plan the site for the new college.

Jefferson agreed to write the group’s findings. He had no intention of limiting the report to a recommendation about location. Instead, he took the opportunity to propose a universal course of study and make another argument for public education. With the help of his old friend James Madison, the findings were soon published.

In his report, Jefferson proposed a system of elementary education to teach all citizens about their rights and duties to the community and to the country. He wanted students of higher education to be well-versed in political theory, have a strong knowledge of law and government, and have the skills to reason and debate issues. Basically, among other things, he wanted high quality history and civic education.

The Virginia legislature accepted the commission’s recommendation about the site of the university. But it took no further action on the other elements of Jefferson’s plan. Universal public education in America would have to wait 100 years.

Until the 1840s, private schools provided most education in the United States, mainly to the wealthy. Some regions, particularly New England, did have public elementary grade schools. Reformers set out to improve the situation. Among the most prominent was Horace Mann of Massachusetts. He started a publication called the Common School Journal. In this journal, he advocated for what he called common schooling, a system offering education to all children.

Mann argued that public education would help create good and informed citizens, unite society, and help prevent poverty and crime. State legislative bodies around the country responded to these arguments. By 1918, 100 years after Jefferson proposed his idea for public education, all states had laws requiring children to have at least some education. Later, states increased the education required, most until a young person reached the age of 16.

The founders’ hope for citizens to have at least a basic civic education came to pass.

Are Young People Ready to Be Effective Citizens?

During the presidential campaign of 2008, most of the major candidates’ parties courted the youth vote, those voters between 18 and 24. For example, the Obama campaign initiated a variety of social networking strategies to connect with young voters; the McCain campaign often highlighted youthful speakers at rallies and speeches. The youth vote proved crucial in the primaries when huge numbers of young voters turned out. And indeed, on Election Day itself, the percentage of youthful voters casting votes did increase to 48.5 percent up from 41.9 percent in 2004 presidential election. Still, young voters participated at a lower rate than any other age group. For example, voters in the age range 65 to 74 voted at a rate of 72.4 percent. This is not a new trend. Since 18 year olds got the right to vote, they have always voted at lower rates than older Americans.

A number of reasons account for the lower voter turnout among young voters. Many young people are focused on college and starting careers and families. Many have not yet settled in one area or own property, and they don’t feel they have a real stake in what government does.

But voting is not the only factor that raises questions about whether young people are prepared to take the role of effective citizens.

On the 2006 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) in civics, two-thirds of all students scored below proficient, and 72 percent of 8th graders surveyed could not identify the historical purpose of the Declaration of Independence. These results showed little improvement over the 1996 assessment.

In a study conducted in California, a survey was given to graduating seniors who had recently completed a mandatory American government course. Although a high percentage of students reported that they intended to vote, the number declined when asked if they felt prepared to vote. Their confidence declined even more when asked about specific issues such as Iraq, the economy, or health care.

Only one-half of the students could identify the function of the Supreme Court. Thirty-three percent could not name one of California’s two U.S. senators from a list of options. Forty-one percent did not know which of the two national parties was more conservative. The survey revealed that students overall only averaged a little above 60 percent correct on items designed to test civics content knowledge, a low “D” on common grading scales. (California Survey of Civic Education, 2005)

The survey also revealed that today’s graduates are not prepared for, or inclined toward, effective participatory citizenship. Less than half of the high school seniors believed that, “Being actively involved in state and local issues is my responsibility.” Only 41 percent surveyed agreed with the statement that, “In order to be patriotic, one must be involved in the civic and political life of the country.”

Given these findings, it should be no surprise that young peoples’ trust in government is appallingly low. Only 33 percent of high school seniors trust “the people in government to do what is right for the country” and only 28 percent agreed with the statement, “I think that people in government care about what people like me and my family need.”

There are other signs that today’s young people are less prepared, or less willing, to assume the role of effective citizens. Voting rates of young people in presidential and congressional elections in the 1970s were generally higher than today. A survey of college freshmen, conducted since the mid-1960s by UCLA nationwide, shows a steady decline over the last four decades in responses to civic engagement questions. For example, significantly fewer college freshmen discuss politics with their friends or think keeping up with politics is important.

There are good signs, too. On the California survey, 86 percent of the students surveyed agreed with the statement, “I try to help when I see people in need.” Only 5 percent disagreed. Also, 84 percent of all high school seniors reported that they volunteered while in high school. Other studies have shown that those in the 18–25 age group are more tolerant than older people. They are very supportive of free speech for diverse groups. They are also more likely to socialize across racial lines.

The Role of Schools

Until the 1960s, three courses in civics and government were common in American high schools. Civics explored the role of citizens, especially at the local and state level. It was often taught at the ninth grade. Problems of Democracy encouraged students to discuss current issues and events. U.S. Government focused on the structures and function of national government. Only the latter is common today.

Today’s public schools have many educational priorities. In recent years, federal and state policies have focused on increasing graduation rates, preparing students for college and the workplace, and improving reading, math, and science education. In some schools, this means fewer resources are available for social studies and civics education.

These trends have caused educators to question whether schools should strengthen their civic education programs.

In 2001, the Carnegie Foundation of New York and the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) brought together a distinguished group of educators, researchers, and scholars to study the problems of civic education. After extensive deliberations, the panel’s report described the goals of civic education as follows: To help prepare young people to become citizens who (1) are informed and thoughtful, (2) participate in their communities, (3) act politically, and (4) have moral and civic virtues.

With the help of educational researchers, the group also identified “promising approaches” that schools could use to improve civic education. Research has shown that these school practices increase students’ civic knowledge, skills, and interest in civic engagement. Schools should:

1. Provide formal instruction in government, history, law, and democracy. The most effective classes encourage open debate and active discussion of issues that affect students’ lives.

2. Incorporate discussion of current local, national, and international issues and events into the classroom. Active discussion of issues, especially those students care about, increases students’ civic and political knowledge and skills, improves civic attitudes, and increases political participation.

3. Have students apply what they learn through community service linked to the curriculum and classroom instruction. This helps students develop skills and encourages political and community participation.

4. Offer extracurricular activities that involve students in their schools and communities. The most effective activities involve students in decision making and problem solving.

5. Encourage student voice and participation in school governance. Studies have found that students who believe they can make a difference in how their school is run or that their student council affects school policies have more knowledge about politics and more interest in current affairs than other students.

6. Encourage student participation in simulations of democratic processes and procedures. Activities such as mock trials, moot courts, and legislative hearings increase civic and political knowledge and skills and improve civic attitudes.

No single promising approach addresses all positive civic outcomes. Some are better at helping students achieve knowledge gains. Others are better at building civic or positive attitudes. For this reason, experts argue that students should receive as many of these opportunities as possible during their time in school.

Debates Over Civic Education

Not everyone is convinced that more civic education in schools is a good idea. Some argue that civic education is best left to parents and families. They point out that more than anything students learn in school, what happens in the home is the biggest factor in determining whether one will vote, develop political knowledge and civic skills, and be interested and participate in politics. For example, research shows that students who regularly discuss politics with parents, or who have parents who are active in politics or in their community, are most likely to do these things themselves.

Others worry that certain kinds of civic education in classrooms could lead to problems. For example, if open discussion of controversial issues in the classroom were encouraged, would students expressing unpopular opinions or values learned in the home be subject to ridicule or attack? Or should young people be forced to participate in community service or service learning?

Finally, some argue that social studies education should be more traditional. It should focus on historical facts, not contemporary issues. It should be teacher-centered and not promote student-centered approaches such as open discussion of issues, simulations, or inquiry-based methods. They worry that at least some of the “promising approaches” either don’t work, are not appropriate for all students, or could lead to indoctrination.

Today, as at the time of the founders, questions and debates arise about how best to prepare young people to take over the role of leaders and citizens in our democratic republic. Our future depends on it.

For Discussion

1. Why might it be important for young people in a democracy to learn about the Constitution and our governmental and legal systems?

2. When you are eligible, will you vote? Do you feel prepared to vote wisely? Why or why not?

3. In your school career have you experienced any of the “promising approaches” of civic education? If so, what effect did they have on you?

4.  Should civic education have more emphasis in schools? Why or why not?


School Board

In this activity, students role play school board members deciding whether to adopt the six promising approaches for classes in the school district.

1. Divide students into small groups.

2. Each group will role play a committee of a school board charged with recommending whether to adopt the six promising approaches. Each group should:

a. Read and discuss the six promising approaches.

b. Decide whether these approaches should be adopted in the district. (The committee may choose to adopt all, some, none or to modify them or add other approaches.)

c. Be prepared to report its recommendations and reasons for them.

3. Have the committees report their recommendations, discuss them, and hold a vote as the school board on whether to adopt the promising approaches.

Opinion Poll

In this activity, students administer a civics poll on students from other classes. Each student should administer the poll to five students.

Civics Poll

1. When you are 18, do you intend to vote?  YES NO Unsure

2. Do you think you are prepared to vote?  YES NO Unsure

The next questions relate to your social studies classes (civics, history, and government).

3. Did you participate in simulations or role plays of democratic processes (such as mock trials, moot courts, and legislative hearings)?  YES NO Unsure

4. Did you have the opportunity to debate or  discuss current issues or events?

YES NO Unsure




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