ACCORDING TO THE Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, a nonpartisan research organization at Tufts University, only about half of registered voters aged 18-29 voted in the 2016 presidential election. The fact that half of young people who registered to vote — and a majority of young people of voting age — actively made the choice to not participate in one of the most contentious elections in modern memory should raise concerns across the country about how disconnected young people are from their political system.
Notwithstanding campaign spending of over $1 billion on the November election, because of the degradation of our political process, the character assassinations, and the rumors and innuendos, many people, especially younger voters, sat out the election. This means that the electorate was older and therefore less likely to be concerned about the future than would be the case if all sectors of the electorate voted in equal numbers.
Although there are many reasons for this dramatic and discouraging trend, we believe that the primary reason is the failure of public schools (and their private counterparts) to educate young people about their government. American history is not taught to the extent that it was a generation ago. Civics has all but disappeared from the curriculum. Young people may know more about who won the Super Bowl than who has a majority in the Senate. Surveys suggest that more young people can name the Three Stooges than can name even three justices (of the nine) on the Supreme Court.
We think there are a number of ways to help to improve the situation.
Number one is to encourage educators and administrators to bring civics education back into the classroom. Perhaps it need not be a full year course as was the case prior to and after World War II, but at least enough so that young people know the basics. This should be basic instruction in government so that people can be better citizens. And there are different models for doing so. In Finland, the great majority of sixth graders complete a civics simulation/education program called Me & My City. For comparison, Finland’s 2015 election saw 73 percent of voting age citizens getting out to vote. Compare that to the US where only 55 percent of voting age citizens cast ballots (a 20-year low). Massachusetts recently took a step in the right direction by announcing that it will soon be adding a social studies MCAS graduation requirement, which will incorporate civics education. While this step is welcomed, for civics education to have an impact on students it is important that it is always accessible and provides real-life tools to all students.
Number two, we should encourage programs such as Generation Citizen to work in the classrooms to supplement whatever public schools may or may not do. Generation Citizen brings local college students (such as one of the authors) into primary and secondary school classrooms to teach civics education and then applies that civics knowledge by having students actively participate in a project to affect a civic-oriented issue in their community.
Number three, we should expand programs such as Boys State and Girls State, so that young people understand government just as many may now better understand the United Nations because of the proliferation of model UN programs across the country. The Boys and Girls State programs offer an extracurricular opportunity for students to learn more about government and to participate in a mock government system (complete with student mayors, student judges, and student lawyers).
Particularly after the recent election, many people are worried about the state of our political system and the trust deficit between the people and their institutions. However, it is important to remember that this nation has survived many crises going back generations. We have survived the resignation of a president, the impeachment of others, depression, wars, and an attack on our shores in 2001.
As a nation, we need to have a healthy and participatory electorate if we are to weather the storms that are likely to be facing us in the future.
Lawrence S. DiCara is a partner at Nixon Peabody and former president of the Boston City Council. Patrick Reynolds is chairman of the Board of Selectmen in North Attleboro and a student at Providence College. They are both graduates—more than 40 years apart—of Massachusetts Boys State, a week-long summer citizenship sponsored by the American Legion.