Unique in its demands as a system of governance, democracy requires active citizen leadership to be successful. Citizen leadership, in turn, requires engagement based on knowledge and action. Therefore, civic and political education is essential to the success of any democracy. This article discusses a model of applied political and civic leadership education that is based in theory, yet practical to the lives of young people. Surveys of past participants demonstrate that after the program, participants are more confident that they have the skills to become involved in politics and in community life.
Young Americans exhibit striking contradictions: they are active in social organizations, yet fairly disengaged from politics and political participation. The UCLA Higher Education Research Institute (2004) reports that 34.3% of freshmen believed that "keeping up to date with political affairs" is a very important or essential life goal. This compared to the 60.3% of freshmen reported in 1966. In addition, only 25.5% of freshmen in 2004 reported discussing politics (HERI 2004).
This lack of interest in things political is coupled with a much more serious problem: Americans lack basic political knowledge, do not participate in the political process and increasingly do not know how to do so (Keeter, et al. 2003). At a minimum, citizens need to know what government is and what it does (Barber 1973: 44) and traditional normative theory suggests that citizens should be interested and participate in political affairs because the democratic system of governance depends on the participation of individual citizens (see Berelson, Lazersfeld and McPhee 1954). In other words, for a democracy to function in a vibrant and sound manner, citizens must have a minimal level of knowledge and interest in political issues. Both anecdotal evidence from news reports and empirical research shows that Americans' basic level of political knowledge is poor. The most systematic empirical examination of this topic by Delli Carpini and Keeter (1996) confirms that while Americans are not as uninformed as some might think, they are also not as informed as democratic theory suggests that they should be. Delli Carpini and Keeter identified thousands of survey questions dating to the 1930s and found that less than half of all respondents could answer questions related to domestic and foreign policy topics.
In terms of participation in the political process, Americans are doing so less and less. Despite a slight surge in the 2004 election, the most basic form of political participation in America, voting, has seen a steady decline in recent decades (Lopez, Kirby, and Sagoff 2004). Other forms of political participation, such as writing a member of Congress, attending a meeting related to a town or school affair, or signing a petition, have also declined in recent decades (Delli Carini 2000). This lack of knowledge and interest in things political could presage difficulties for American democracy. For instance, scholars (especially Graber 1984) have pointed out that there is a connection between political information and political skills. The lower the level of political information and skills one has acquired, the less likely one is to have the intention of participating in the political process. Research has shown that strong civic culture is directly related to more effective and innovative government (Rice and Sumberg 1997).
To What End Education?
Thus, for a democracy to function in a vibrant and sound manner, citizen leaders must have a minimal level of interest and knowledge. While citizens have opportunities to learn about politics and public policy in any number of ways, scholars are nearly unanimous in agreeing that formal education is among the strongest influences on the political knowledge of the individual (see Hyman, Wright and Reed 1975; Delli Carpini and Keeter 1996; Nie et al. …