Apathy, distrust, and nonparticipation

Linda Fandel’s blog at The Des Moines Register is focused on “world class schools for Iowa.” Kudos to her and the Register for devoting time and attention to this issue.

In a recent guest post advocating better civics instruction, former U.S. Senator John Culver said:

Many young people leave school lacking even a rudimentary understanding of how their government works and how it affects their lives. This lack of understanding leads to a lack of interest, a lack of trust and a lack of participation.

In my comment to his post, I said:

Another reason that students lack interest, trust, or participation in governmental affairs is that many of them are quite cynical about whether Constitutional freedoms even exist. As a 2003 report from the First Amendment Center noted, “Students will not learn the lessons of democracy if they cannot experience firsthand the freedom to make their own choices.” And yet so much of school (and, let’s be honest, home) is about control and lack of trust. Few students get a chance to meaningfully participate in decision-making about their own learning. School restrictions (and accompanying lawsuits) regarding student speech, expression, and behavior have escalated over the past few decades.

Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson, ruling for the majority in West Virginia v. Barnette, said that the Court must ensure “scrupulous protection of constitutional freedoms of the individual, if we are not to strangle the free mind at its source and teach youth to discount important principles of our government as mere platitudes.” Why would we expect young people to be active, engaged citizens upon graduation when they rarely, if ever, get to see their supposed ‘freedoms’ at work? Are we surprised that young adults are apathetic (or is it just realistic?) when their primary interaction with government – school – is in a limiting, suppressive environment that, at every turn, tells them that their voice doesn’t matter? Unlike Athena, who was supposedly born fully-formed from the head of Zeus, our students need practice with both the rights and responsibilities of democratic citizenship before they graduate if we are to accomplish our desire to have an interested, involved citizenry.

What do you think? Do students get adequate opportunities in schools to see their Constitutional rights and responsibilities at work?

4 Responses to “Apathy, distrust, and nonparticipation”

  1. I would also wager that the way the topic gets taught might have something to do with student disinterest and apathy.

    Having seen how the use of “Decisions, Decisions” (Tom Snyder software) and several interactive web sites in middle school classrooms leads to student interest, teachers of government, civics and social studies classes would do well to reexamine their methods. As Marx Prensky says, engagement may be as, if not more, important than the content itself.

  2. I think the simulations of government in action are the way to go. I remember a session of “mock congress” in high school where a few people got to do the actual work.

    We need everyone to know the process. The best way to do that would actually be to get as many people involved as possible in every step of the process. (With appropriate coaching and a decent amount of time to really get their hands on it.) This is a situation that just screams for a sim.

    Otherwise Jeff is right. Students will think this is one more thing for just a few people to do. So why bother?

  3. I tried to link to Senator Culver’s post, but the server was down. I am curious about what he sees as the solution to the problem. Mandating a new curriculum or a rewrite of state civics standards? The road to hell is paved with good intentions.

    While Senator Culver’s concerns are valid and should alarm all of us. Previous government solutions to like problems have led to less freedoms and more ineffective schools.

    This is not a new concern…

    “Bodily exercise, when compulsory, does no harm to the body; but knowledge which is acquired under compulsion obtains no hold on the mind.” – Plato

    “To me the worst thing seems to be a school principally to work with methods of fear, force and artificial authority. Such treatment destroys the sound sentiments, the sincerity and the self-confidence of pupils and produces a subservient subject.” – Albert Einstein

    We have a difficult time seeing the big picture. Special interests create new mandates to fix some problem in their narrow field of vision, without seeing the broader picture or extrapolating the unintended consequences of their mandates. In the end, these mandates often end up undermining their original intent simply because they are mandates.

  4. Susan Brooks-Young Reply August 18, 2008 at 1:01 pm

    Have you read Just How Stupid are We? A good book that addresses this critical topic.

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