Fanning the Flames: The Freedom Project Blog


Educating for Democracy: Lessons from Chicago

By Shawn Healy
The title of a new report published by the Consortium on Chicago School Research at the University of Chicago, who conducted a longitudinal study of nearly 4,000 CPS students over the course of two years, and found that students who experienced discussions of social issues and were afforded opportunities to engage in service learning, developed a stronger commitment to civic involvement.

The problem of civic disengagement and apathy is of course well-documented. Between the years 1960 and 1976, 25% of young people between the ages of 18 and 15 followed public affairs. The number plummeted to 5% by 2000. Moreover, civic engagement has a strong correlation with one's position on the economic ladder. Affluent Americans are 4 times more likely to work on political campaigns, 3 times more likely to volunteer in their community, twice as likely to contact public officials, and 9 times more likely to donate to political campaigns.

Civics education has gone the way of the dodo. In fact, past research showed little connection between a civics course and subsequent engagement. Recent emphasis on high-stakes testing has pushed social studies classes and other subjects to the wayside in favor of math and reading, a decline of 71%!

My own experiences as an educator were confirmed with the results of this study. Classroom practices in civics classes and across the curriculum can impact civic engagement. Indeed, when best practices are incorporated, they are the most meaningful factor, eclipsing parental discussions of current events, neighborhood social capital, one's social sense of belonging, school and non-school clubs, even poverty. Such techniques include service learning, monitoring current events, discussing local problems and identifying potential solutions, in-class discussions of controversial issues and issues pertinent to young people, and exposing students to civic role models.

I was fortunate to teach an American government course at Community High School in West Chicago, IL, for four years, and to work with amazing mentors like Steve Arnold and Mary Ellen Daneels. The two of them created a simulation of the lawmaking process called the Legislative Semester that has since been replicated at a number of area high schools. Senior students are exposed to a semester-long journey as a representative in a legislature. They discuss controversial issues, declare their political affiliations, write legislation, elect leadership, and consider the merits of bills proposed through committee hearings and several full sessions of the legislature. Parliamentary procedure, the underlying structure of government debate, is used every day in the classroom.

The results are inspirational. Students became political animals, engaging in arguments at all hours of the day in online forums, in the hallways, even in the cafeteria. I used to receive complaints from other teachers that these discussions were even interrupting their classes! Many joined our school's chapter of Junior State of America to carry on these deliberations beyond school hours, others served as election judges. Former students visited merely to tell me that they voted in the recent election. Several went on to study political science in college, and a few work on political campaigns.

These are mere anecdotes, but they confirm what Sue Sporte, my friend on the Illinois Civic Mission Coalition, found in the aforementioned study. Civics instruction, when properly executed, matters. Indeed it is our best chance to reclaim our representative democracy, for schools are the one place where Americans of all races, ethnicities, and income levels come together.

The report included a quotation by former University of Chicago President Robert Maynard Hutchins. He wrote, "The death of democracy is not likely to be an assassination from ambush. It will be a slow extinction from apathy, indifference, and undernourishment."

Time to feed the political animal deep inside all of us.


Blogger brendan.chan said...

Democracy 2.0 Declaration –

On Thursday, October 4th, 2007, 50 youth leaders worked together at the Democracy 2.0 Summit in Washington D.C. The Summit, a national movement instituted by, is a way to bring attention to the ideas that America’s youth has to offer. Democracy 2.0 is designed to address the civic participation needs and interests of the Millennial Generation (targeting the 16-30 age group). has worked for the past year to survey young people about what they feel is an issue in both their own community and on a national level. This consensus among the youth of America has been addressed during the Summit in order to produce the Democracy 2.0 Declaration. This declaration represents what the youth believes is working and is not working in the current democracy of the U.S.

The declaration serves as a foundation for political candidates to understand what the youth of America feels strongly about. The Declaration will be shared with 435 youth representatives at’s Party for the Presidency, an event in Hollywood, CA that will take place December 29-31.

Democracy 2.0 was launched to upgrade and renew our political process in America by providing guidelines for positive social change that take advantage of both the tremendous passion of today’s youth leaders and the powerful social networking and technology tools they are using to create communities. is here to listen and help instigate change within the youth of America. You can get involved by going to for more information.

9:51 PM  

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Managing Director

McCormick Freedom Project

Shawn is responsible for overseeing and managing the operations associated with the McCormick Freedom Project. Additionally, he serves as the in house content expert and voice of museum through public speaking and original scholarship. Before joining the Freedom Project, he taught American Government, Economics, American History, and Chicago History at Community High School in West Chicago, IL and Sheboygan North High School in Wisconsin.

Shawn is a doctoral candidate within the Political Science Department at the University of Illinois at Chicago where he received his MA in Political Science. He is a 2001 James Madison Fellow from the State of Wisconsin and holds a bachelor's degree in Political Science, History, and Secondary Education from the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

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About Fanning the Flames and the McCormick Freedom Project

Fanning the Flames is a blog of the McCormick Freedom Project, which was started in 2006 by museum managing director Shawn Healy. The blog highlights the news of the day, in hopes of engaging readers in dialogue about freedom issues. Any views or opinions expressed on this blog represent those of the writers alone and do not represent an official opinion of the McCormick Freedom Project.

Founded in 2005, the McCormick Freedom Project is part of the McCormick Foundation. The Freedom Project’s mission is to enable informed and engaged participation in our democracy by demonstrating the relevance of the First Amendment and the role it plays in the ongoing struggle to define and defend freedom. The museum offers programs and resources for teachers, students, and the general public.

First Amendment journalism initiative

The Freedom Project recently launched a new reporting initiative with professional journalists Tim McNulty and Jamie Loo. The goal is to expand and promote the benefits of lifelong civic engagement among citizens of all ages, through original reporting, commentary and news aggregation on First Amendment and freedom issues. Please visit the McCormick Freedom Project's news Web site, The Post-Exchange at

Dave Anderson
Vice President of Civic Programs
McCormick Foundation

Tim McNulty
Senior Journalist
McCormick Freedom Project

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