Monday, October 11, 2004

On Teen Suffrage 


Does raising the youth vote justify trivializing civic engagement?


Philly Inquirer collumnist Jane Eisner spoke at our all-school assembly last night as part of our quad-annual civics exercise Votes 2004.

Eisner's big idea: First time voters don't take advantage of their voting rights, and she thinks she knows why. Her three-point case:
  1. Politics has changed. The rising generation experiences the political process as "money-oriented and televised," she says, and thus sees most of it as "nasty." This disgusts people, and ultimately supresses voting.

  2. The rise of volunteerism and community service creates a misperception that service is the only effective way to make change. Concentration on the importance of direct community action ironically sets up naturally dichotomous-thinking students to conclude that civic responsibility is meaningless -- i.e. the service curriculum minimizes the sense of relevance of politics. The result: a service gap.

  3. Schools nationwide have experienced a significant decline in civics education. High Schoolers used to average three civics classes in four years; now they average one. Eisner didn't say so, but I'd attribute this to, among other things, the rise of the globalist and multiethnic curricula, which have supplanted local issues in education. We saw the same issue when the global movement changed the focus of Sesame Street, causing it to jump the shark.

I agree with Eisner -- this is a serious issue, worthy of our time and energy. But I don't think she takes that first point seriously enough.

It's easy to suggest that modern politics is nasty, but I think the problem is more that the political arena is necessarily going to be seen as trivial when it is primarily perceived through the entertainment medium of television.

Maybe I'm biased, being a media teacher. But if McLuhan and Postman are right, then the message of politics in a television age is the same message as television itself: passive, idealistic, distant, and unreachable. Television is the antithesis of politics -- we might even say that television denigrates politics, over time.

We end up deserving the politics we get if we allow this to continue. Kids -- our kids -- know that Sean Coombs wears a "Vote or Die" t-shirt, and maybe they'll even vote because of it, but famous people are one-dimensional to them: voting because someone famous says you should vote makes voting a kind of entertainment, too, which ultimately perpetuates the trivial and the disempowering non-engagment that so characterizes modern youth involvement. I have severe doubts that long-term civic engagement as a thoughtful and politicized mechanism for cultural participation can really spring from such Rock The Vote tactics.

No wonder our kids aren't engaged. They're being screwed in real life, but they can't see the connection when they are presented with politics-as-fairytale, right alongside of Survivor and Extreme Makeover, instead of being presented with a real politic.

Which really leaves schools with the heavy burden for creating a sense of civic engagement, doesn't it?

Problematically, however, Eisner suggested that most schools could "fix" this engagement gap easily. But she also seemed to feel that NMH was an exception to this rule, and you could see teachers in the crowd nodding their heads. I disagree. Though a few kids get to choose to take Government and Civil Liberties instead of US History each year, for the vast majority of our students, the way we teach civics is so vague and distributed it might as well be nothin'. Our kids see even their own student government as predominantly useless, and few kids not in it know how it works. Having a school government is not necessarily part of a civics curriculum; in many schools, it is little more than another competitive closed-ranks clique which helps one get into college.

Here, mock voting could help -- something which we do do well, at least if Votes 2004 is promoted internally as well or better than it was in 2000. But this only happens for two months every four years, so it misses a vast majority of our student body, many of whom don't come here until their Junior year. Eisner said a Yale study proved that schools which prought voting booths into classrooms had much higher incidence of adolescent voting, and I believe it, so why was her answer to the student who bravely asked "how DO you vote" so unsatisfying? (Eisner's answer: it's different for every state, so I can't explain it...but taking the mystery out of voting is good. Duh.)

Additionally, then, I'd propose tying community service into politics -- allowing partisan service, encouraging service at polling places -- but also supplanting much of those boring and increasingly distant U. S. History classes with something a bit more modern and real which has direct relevance to the civic lives of students themselves, because, heck, most of our kids don't even understand the reasoning behind the electoral college.

Heck, most of my so-called liberal friends don't understand the dangers of the popular vote, either.

posted by boyhowdy | 9:50 PM |

Comments:
I wonder why the parents are not more engaged here? I got my sense of civic pride from my father, who drilled into me that not only was it my right to vote, it was my solemn responsibility.
Anne
http://muddyblog.typepad.com
 
I wonder why the parents are not more engaged here?Several thoughts, Anne:

1. I work at a boarding school; for our students, this IS home. To some extent, then, it is our responsibility to BE the parent for some or even most of the kinds of "curriculum" which are traditionally taught at home. I think parents who send their kids here hope we will take that in loco parentis responsibility seriously -- and in some cases (for example, in the case of teaching health and behavioral norms), we do that quite well.

2. Civic responsibility isn't always an issue that parents handle well, and my guess is that this is because many adults learned civic responsibility from their parents as a partisan issue, tied up with party politics. For MY parents, who learned their responsibilities this way, this meant that because in my family political viewpoints are a private matter, so is civics (obviously a flawed connection, but there you are). I think for my students, who easily confuse partisanship with civics anyway because they are adolescents and still learning to think clearly, this means that those who don't agree with their parents' politics also end up feeling ambivalent about any civic lessons that might come from their parents.

As a corrolary (sp?) to #2, I think schools have the POTENTIAL to teach civic responsibility as separate from partisan politics much better than many parents can. That raises the stakes, and makes it worse that we're not "getting there."

Other issues which could be relevant:

- unlike our own childhoods, for the parent generation of THESE kids, civics was protest, not voting;

- these parents have a vastly different relationship (including less influence as teachers) with their kids than we had with our parents due to other mass media distancing issues which change family dynamics;

- the idea of party politics, which used to be a family issue which allowed the civics lesson to go forwards, is pretty much dead -- hardly anyone, as Eisner herself reminded us, votes a party ticket, and much more folks identify as Independent these days;

- Eisner's second main idea -- that civics has been supplanted by service lessons -- is a cultural-scale issue, so it happens at home, too (I daresay where we used to have civics discussions in the home, we now have community service discussions in the home)

It's great that your father instilled civic values in you, by the way. I just don't think that always works, and (for the above reasons) think schools have a greater responsibility here anyway, since they themselves are part and parcel of the civic arena -- after all, in many communities, voting itself is taking place in the gym just down the hall during the Nov. 2nd class day...
 
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