Whatever Happened to Civics? Today's Young People Are Way Too Disengaged from the Political Process, According to a Survey by the Alliance for Representative Democracy

Article excerpt

More young Americans can name the reigning American Idol and the city where the cartoon Simpsons live than know the political party of their state's governor.

That's one of the more troubling findings of "Citizenship: A Challenge for All Generations," released in September by the Alliance for Representative Democracy, a partnership of NCSL's Trust for Representative Democracy, the Center for Civic Education and the Center on Congress at Indiana University.

The report is based on the results of a national survey, which found that 15- to 26-year-olds (and there are 40 million of them in this country) don't understand the ideals of citizenship; they are disengaged from the political process; they lack the knowledge necessary for effective self-government; and they have limited appreciation of American democracy.

It's clear, based on these and other findings, that policymakers and teachers must devote new energy to civic education. The report was the centerpiece of the first Congressional Conference on Civic Education in Washington, D.C. It presents evidence that engaging courses in civics and government pique young people's interest in and aid their understanding of the American system.

The study shows that:

* Only 66 percent of this younger generation believe it's necessary to vote in order to be a good citizen, compared with 83 percent of Americans over age 26.

* Half of those 18 to 26 claim to have voted in the last election, compared with three-fourths of those over 26. (In reality, only half of the total population is registered to vote, and only half of those registered actually vote.)

* Half of those 26 or younger regularly or sometimes follow government news and believe you should in order to be a good citizen, compared with three-fourths of those over 26.

* Eighty percent of those 26 or younger know Ruben Studdard won the last American Idol competition. But fewer than half know the party of their state's governor.

"The generational gaps in civic knowledge, attitudes and participation are greater than they have ever been, at least since we have public opinion polls to document," says Karl Kurtz, director of the National Conference of State Legislatures' Trust for Representative Democracy and co-author of the report. "The Baby Boomers, the World War II generation and our schools have failed to teach the ideals of citizenship to young people."

By definition, the strength of representative democracy in the United States depends on the involvement of citizens, the report explains. To ensure the continued prosperity of our country, citizens must understand, appreciate and take part in the political process. More civic education is an antidote to indifference. The study found that:

* Members of the younger generation who have taken a course in American government or civics are more likely to see themselves as personally responsible for improving society, and they have a broader concept of the qualities of a good citizen.

For example, 71 percent of teens and adults in their early 20s who have taken a government course believe voting is a necessary component of good citizenship, compared with 57 percent of those who have not taken civics. …