Educating for Democracy: Lessons from Chicago
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.