© 2023
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Kids need to be inspired to civic involvement

Forgive me if this sounds like a boast, but it is a fact that in the 4th grade, I was elected class president. Ah, the glory. Two things then happened: My parents bragged about me, and something ignited in my heart that inspired a lifelong interest in politics and civic affairs — leading me, years later, to work on campaigns and on Capitol Hill and then become a political journalist and a newspaper editor, jobs that I always considered public service.  

But this isn’t about me. Consider, rather, what all my 8- and 9-year-old classmates and I learned that day about civics, which is the study of the rights and duties of citizens. We learned that elections have winners and losers — that is, outcomes that we accept even if they disappoint us – and that elections have consequences: I got to proudly lead my class into all-school assemblies in the gym.  

But as to civics lessons these days in American schools, it’s not going so well – at least, so it seems according to the results announced last month from what’s known as the “Nation’s Report Card” – formally, the National Assessment of Educational Progress.  

Tests administered last spring to thousands of 8th graders showed history scores continuing a nearly decade-long decline, and civics results falling significantly for the first time. Just 22 percent of the students scored at the “proficient” level in civics; only 13 percent hit the mark in history. Those low-scoring students are now 9th graders. In three years, they’ll be eligible to vote, the fundamental privilege and responsibility of civic life in a free society.  

And that is why the test results have to trouble us. Citizens who don’t understand how our democracy works aren’t likely to participate. People who don’t grasp the lessons of history are vulnerable to manipulation by demagogues.  

It’s not the kids’ fault, of course. Part of it can be blamed on the lingering effects of the COVID school shutdowns. But long before that, a lot of schools were shortchanging their students: One-third of those tested 8th graders had never taken a course focused on U.S. history, and only half had taken a civics course. Just seven states require a civics course in middle school.  

Why? Partly because at the beginning of the 21st century, an international study showed that the U.S. ranked in the bottom third of advanced nations in students’ scientific knowledge and competency. So almost overnight, it seemed, the focus of schools – and parents and the business community – turned to STEM studies – science, technology, engineering and math – even for lower grades. And that left behind other parts of the traditional curriculum. America had to catch up with Europe, you know.  

But even if all the nation’s schools were to restore funding and scheduling for American history and civics education tomorrow, we would still be challenged to bring students up to the level of understanding of the topics that our society needs. That’s because the issues being taught have become a battleground in the nation’s culture wars.  

State and local boards of education are pushing back against instruction that accurately portrays key elements of American history – notably, the role of slavery in advancing the nation’s wealth, and the impact of racism over the centuries. And how do you teach civics in an environment where one of the nation’s two major political parties persists in advancing the lie that the last presidential election was rigged?  

Imagine how MAGA parents might react to a current events discussion that deals honestly with the attack on the Capitol of Jan. 6, 2021. What would you say to students about the value of every person casting a ballot when one party is doing all it can to make it harder for young people and people of color to vote?  

Anyway, kids pick up a lot outside the classroom. And today’s politics has got to be turning them off. They hear their parents’ vitriol directed toward people who disagree with them. They see youngsters their own age slaughtered in schools, while the political system does nothing to protect them.  

So the bright kids – the type drawn to public service a generation or two ago – now are less likely to make that choice. Who wants a lifetime of fighting with an opponent who doesn’t play by the same rules? Why interact with a political system that doesn’t deliver on its promises?  

Hard jobs are often sustained by inspiration. But the power of patriotism to inspire Americans to public service is constrained today by the realization that our system of government is failing. So the candidates for public office emerging from the generation now in school are likely to be only those who see political life as an opportunity for glory, not public service. We have quite enough of those already, don’t we?  

Both our schools and our fractured political culture, then, are hobbling civic understanding. And while it’s potentially tragic for the nation, it’s also a bit heartbreaking to consider the youngsters who, like that 4th grade class president so many decades ago, might be encouraged by what they learn to work in their own way for the betterment of their communities. We need to give those kids a chance for that inspiration.

Rex Smith, the co-host of The Media Project on WAMC, is the former editor of the Times Union of Albany and The Record in Troy. His weekly digital report, The Upstate American, is published by Substack.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

Rex Smith, the co-host of The Media Project on WAMC, is the former editor of the Times Union of Albany and The Record in Troy. His weekly digital report, The Upstate American, is published by Substack."
Related Content
  • In the men’s locker room at the rather posh club just up the street from our state capitol, you’ll find everything a well-groomed male politician — or anybody who wants to look like one — might need after a workout and a shower: There’s anti-perspirant and hair gel, for example, and packages of single-use toothbrushes pre-treated with minty toothpaste. And there’s a big canister of 8-inch combs soaking in aqua-blue disinfectant. But one day a while back, there were no combs to be found, which I casually mentioned to a longtime lobbyist who was shaving at the next sink.
  • We Americans are so often suckers for clever connivers, especially when they speak with utter authority. Simple solutions to complex problems are much more attractive than a struggle to identify and accept truth. Reality is usually, you know, a bit messy.
  • About one in four Americans get their healthcare through Medicaid, which was created to help people who are poor or who have disabilities. And some 42 million of us — almost 13 percent of the population — draw stipends to pay for food through SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which used to be called food stamps.