I pledge allegiance to the …? On voter participation and the decline of civics education

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The year of “Hope” — 2008 — I was now of voting age. I felt like a part of something as I entered my school gym to cast my ballot. I stepped inside the voting box, closed the blue curtains around me and began exercising my civil right. Immediately, I realized I had no idea who the people on the ballot were or what the laws being proposed meant. All I knew was that when Barack Obama spoke about a bright future for young people, I believed him. 

In retrospect, I am disturbed by the fact that I was so ignorant and for a large part still am about civics. I ask myself if it’s coincidental that so many people across the nation are ill-informed about our government and democratic rights.

It seems ironic that the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services website details the “rights and responsibilities” of citizens, which include the right to vote and a responsibility to participate in the democratic process. A significant portion of the population born in the United States, however, is being failed by the public system, which is supposed to serve young people by assisting them to become informed and well-rounded citizens. Despite these “rights and responsibilities,” Annenberg Public Policy Center’s 2016 survey indicates that only 26% of the population can name all three branches of government. The decline in civic education started in the 1970s, while the past two decades have seen STEM education emphasized.

So where are our students at as far as their civic understanding?

The most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress concluded that only about 23% of eighth-grade students are at or above a proficient level of understanding civics. This statistic is the same for 12th-grade students. According to NAEP, eighth-grade students should be able to explain the purposes of government, the importance of the rule of law, the separation and sharing of powers among branches between federal and state governments, as well as recognize discrepancies between American ideals and reality, explain how citizens influence the government and finally, describe events in the United States and other countries that have international consequences. With the limited amount of time allotted to civic study, it seems hard to imagine that students are able to fully grasp these concepts. 

With the limited amount of time allotted to civic study, it seems hard to imagine that students are able to fully grasp these concepts. 

There has also been a decline in civic interest among college freshmen. Research conducted by the UCLA Higher Education Research Institute indicates that 46% of students report that keeping up with political affairs is “ ‘very important’ or ‘essential’ to them personally, the largest such response since 1990.” This is a decline from the highest record of interest, which in 1960 was at 60%.  

From 1958 to 1964, trust in the government went from 74% to a high of 77%. Now, in 2019, the Pew Research Center found that only 17% of Americans trust the government “to do what is right.” Is this distrust in government that started in the ‘60s being projected onto our nation’s youth and their civic education?

In pop culture, there seems to be a sort of gilded age of civic participation that occurred in the late ‘50s through the mid-‘60s. We see it through films and documentaries proudly illuminating the massive influx of revolutionary thought and action. People came together en masse to change what they wanted to see through civil disobedience and participation. Since then, things have changed — attitudes about our government have changed, and so has our education.

Through a series of alleged assassination attempts, lies and cover-ups, the American people have seemingly lost faith that the government has our best interest in mind. Has the lack of faith in our government subconsciously bled into our public school systems and caused the decrease in civic education? Or is this cynicism correct and the decline is intentional in order to take advantage of the ignorance of the American people in order for a small minority to have control over what happens to the majority?

The current president of the United States declared, “I love the poorly educated” when celebrating his victory in Nevada. I cannot say the true meaning behind this statement. But looking back to myself as a young and uninformed voter, I could imagine how someone in a position of power could greatly benefit from gaining my vote made with an ill understanding, or from people who simply don’t vote because of lack of education.

Now, political debate often seems like a cyclical state of trolling one another on Facebook with unfactual memes, one-upping our “opponent” by calling out grammatical errors and ultimately reducing the debate to name-calling with no real action. I imagine millions of eyeballs hiding behind a computer screen, arguing about a system that the majority do not seem to understand or trust.

If it is the responsibility of citizens to engage in civic participation, they must first be given at least a proficient understanding of civics in order to use their right to vote in a well-informed manner.

Contact Holly Burns at [email protected].

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