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No Joking: Our Kids Are Failing Democracy 101

Reversing the decline in youth civic engagement.

Jay Leno asks civics question to young man on the street.

In the popular Jaywalking segments of his television show, Jay Leno asks a variety of fourth grade questions to random people on the streets of Los Angeles. The audience roars with laughter at their responses.

“Who was the first President of the United States?” Jay asked one young man. “Benjamin. (pause) Benjamin Franklin!” he replied with certainty.

“What was the Gettysburg Address? Have you heard of it?” asked Jay of a young woman. She responded, “Sure, I’ve heard of it! But I don’t know the exact address.”

A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to watch several Jaywalking videos in the presence of retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. Indicating she had never seen Leno’s street interviews before, O’Connor said, “Those aren’t for real, are they?” When someone whispered, “Yes,” I could feel the depth of her dismay. “Oh my, “she replied, “this is so very sad.”

As it turns out, it is even sadder than what Justice O'Connor imagined.

The Educational Testing Service released a new study, Fault Lines in Our Democracy: Civic Knowledge, Voting Behavior, and Civic Engagement in the United States that gives a failing grade to American youth.

Among the dismal findings:

  • Only 25 percent of middle and high school students score at or about “proficient” in their knowledge of civics and American history.
  • There is an unprecedented gap in the income and educational levels of those who vote and those who don’t. The oldest, most highly educated, and highest income Americans are seven times more likely to vote than the youngest, least educated, and lowest income Americans.
  • Volunteering, a driving force in American social change and innovation is closely associated with age, educational attainment, and income. Young, poorly educated youth are highly disengaged from their communities.

While today’s announcement should beckon a call to action for our American educational institutions, civic organizations, and families, it is not the first study or national survey to have discovered a declining lack of civics knowledge among U.S. citizens.

Last year, a New York Times article, Failing Grades on Civics Exam Called a ‘Crisis’, pointed out the dismal state of civics education in the U.S., including a study that found 75 percent of high school seniors could not name a power granted to Congress by the Constitution. In response to the many poor findings in the study, Justice O’Connor admonished, “We cannot afford to continue to neglect the preparation of future generations for active and informed citizenship.”

In studies by the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE), this decline in civic engagement and civic knowledge has been linked to all income and educational levels. In surveys of college freshman, a steep decline in political interests was found from 1966 to 2002. More recently, there was a 31 percent drop in the numbers of 18-29 year-olds who followed current news and affairs.

Should we worry?

The results of the ETS study, combined with others that show a decline in civic engagement, are decidedly worrisome. As the Occupy Wall Street movement brought to the forefront, there is a large imbalance of power in America today. And the imbalance is growing.

Not only do the wealthy hold America’s purse strings, they also elect government officials who form public policy. Older, high-income adults will elect the next President of the United States and most likely re-elect one of the most unpopular Congress’ in decades.

Our nation’s less-educated, lower-income, and young adults have become disenfranchised from the voting and civic engagement process. Some will argue that their disenfranchisement is voluntary, and hold them responsible. But it’s not that simple. When our schools are failing at educating a whole generation of citizens, the blame must be shared by everyone – particularly those with the most resources.

In 1954, Robert Maynard Hutchins, the head of the Ford Foundation and editor of The Great Books, said it best, “The death of democracy is not likely to be an assassination from ambush. It will be a slow extinction from apathy, indifference, and undernourishment.”

The research is exceedingly clear. The days of civic apathy, indifference, and undernourishment are upon us. Democracy flourishes only when all people — rich and poor, young and old, skilled and unskilled — have a voice at the table of public discourse. When power is in the hands of a few, minority populations become oppressed and disenfranchised. Justice is not served. Freedom dwindles away. How many more studies to we need to understand that the future of democracy is at risk?

William Damon, one of the world’s leading scholars of human development and Director of the Stanford University Center on Adolescence, has studied how young people develop purpose, including how they find purpose through citizenship in a free society. In his article, The Core of Civic Virtue, he claims, “The most serious danger Americans now face — greater than terrorism — is that our country’s future may not end up in the hands of a citizenry capable of sustaining the liberty that has been America’s most precious legacy. If trends continue, many young Americans will grow up without an understanding of the benefits, privileges, and duties of citizens in a free society, and without acquiring the habits of character needed to live responsibly in one.”

Should we worry? Most definitely.

What can we do?

Can we change attitudes and behaviors? Of course we can. When Americans chart a course of action, we do what we do best. We educate and innovate.

Retired Justice O'Connor discusses her iCivics project with Mark Moravits of generationOn.

At the age of 82, Justice O’Connor is still an innovator. Using computer games to engage the youngest Americans, she founded iCivics in 2009 in an effort to reverse declining civic knowledge. Visit the iCivics website where children can learn about the Constitution, Bill of Rights, separation of powers, and the three branches of government.

While Justice O’Connor is an inspiration and role model to all of us, she cannot reverse the downward trend of civic engagement alone. Through education reform, we must work to close the achievement gap between the rich and the poor. We must find ways to involve all children in community service and service-learning, teaching them how to collaborate for the public good through democratic processes. The article Are We Raising Good Citizens? explains how children develop the skills needed to contribute to society.

Parents, schools, and communities have many resources on which to draw. In 2010, Points of Light, the largest non-profit in the country devoted to volunteering and civic engagement, founded a new youth division called generationOn. Their website is an excellent resource for parents, teachers, and organizations as well as kids and teens themselves. A great place to initiate hands-on learning at the grassroots of communities, generationOn’s mission is to inspire, equip, and mobilize youth to take action that changes the world and themselves through service.

We have no excuses. If we want our children and grandchildren to live in a free society, it’s time to act in ways that will preserve the future of democracy.

Photo Credit: rao.anirudh

©2012 Marilyn Price-Mitchell. All rights reserved. Please contact for permission to reprint.

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