Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

DEMOCRACY AND CIVIC ENGAGEMENT - Civic Education and Political Participation

Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

DEMOCRACY AND CIVIC ENGAGEMENT - Civic Education and Political Participation

Article excerpt

Today's young people are significantly less involved in and knowledgeable about civic life than were previous generations. Mr. Galston warns that this disengagement has severe ramifications for our society. But he is optimistic that the trend can be reversed by effective school-based civic education.

ANXIETY ABOUT the civic attitudes and activities of young adults in America is nothing new, and its persistence is easy to understand. As far back as evidence can be found -- and virtually without exception -- young adults seem to have been less attached to civic life than their parents and grandparents. Nor is it difficult to find plausible explanations for this gap. Civic attachment is linked to such factors as professional interests (and self-interests), a stable residential location, home ownership, marriage, and parenthood, all of which are statistically less characteristic of younger adults.1 Not surprisingly, in every generation the simple passage of time has brought maturing young adults more fully into the circle of civic life.

So are today's worries any more justified than in times past? Has anything changed?

The answer, I believe, is yes. The reason is to be found in the demographic distinction between cohort effects and generational effects. "Cohorts" represent a snapshot of different age groups at the same historical moment, while "generations" represent the same age groups at different historical moments. If we compare generations rather than cohorts -- that is, if we compare today's young adults not with today's older adults but with young adults of the past -- we find evidence of diminished civic attachment.

Some of the basic facts are well known. In the early 1970s, about one- half of 18- to 29-year-olds voted in Presidential elections. By 2000, fewer than one-third did. The same pattern holds for congressional elections -- a bit more than one-fourth in the mid-1970s, compared to less than one-fifth in 2002.

Less well known are the trends charted by a remarkable UCLA study, conducted since the mid-1960s and involving 250,000 matriculating college freshmen each year. Over this period, every significant indicator of political engagement has fallen by about half. Only 33% of freshmen think that keeping up with politics is important, down from 60% in 1966 (though up a bit from the all-time low of 28% recorded in 2000). Only 16% say they frequently discuss politics, down from 33% in 1966. Not surprisingly, acquisition of political knowledge from traditional media sources is way down, and as yet not enough young people are using the Internet to fill the role newspapers and network TV news once played as sources of civic information.

But the news is not all bad by any means. Today's young people are patriotic, tolerant, and compassionate. They believe in America's principles and in the American Dream. They adeptly navigate our nation's increasing diversity. And, as has been widely reported and discussed, they are more than willing to give of themselves to others. College freshmen are reporting significantly increased levels of volunteering in their last year of high school, a trend that seems to be carrying over to their early college years. But only one-third of today's young volunteers believe that they will continue this practice once they enter the paid work force. And there is no evidence that such volunteerism will lead to wider civic engagement.

On the contrary, young people typically characterize their volunteering as an alternative to official politics, which they see as self-absorbed and unrelated to their deeper ideals. They have limited knowledge of government's impact, either on themselves or on those they seek to assist. They understand why it matters to feed a hungry person at a soup kitchen; they do not understand why it matters where government sets eligibility levels for food stamps or payment levels for the Earned Income Tax Credit. …

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