The Next "Greatest Generation"
“It is you, the young and fearless at heart, the most diverse and educated generation in our history, who the nation is waiting to follow”
Former President Barack Obama
About a year and a half ago, we began to ask ourselves how we can make sure that our two boys develop the knowledge, skills and mindset necessary to be engaged citizens. We wondered why are we not focusing more on the role of citizenship in our schools. It was important to us that our kids acquired the civic knowledge and the skills they needed to engage in the community in a way that was both meaningful and personal to them.
When we embarked on answering these questions, we had no idea where it would take us –we certainly never imagined we would start an organization, rally with thousands of young marchers in Washington, DC beside our kids, and meet and learn from so many amazing students, neighbors, educators, scholars, and leaders who are equally passionate about civic education and citizenship.
Based on what we learned, we know we have the opportunity to do more:
The situation is worse than we thought. The statistics speak for themselves. Survey after survey shows that a majority of us do not have the basic knowledge and understanding about our form of representative democracy in the U.S. Nearly three-fourths of Americans cannot name the three branches of government.
But civic education is not only just learning basic facts about our government. It is also developing the skills and mindset necessary for active and engaged citizenship.
Social media and the access to information (both true and untrue) is creating an urgent need to ensure that young people understand how to access, gather and process information that is available to them. 80% of middle schoolers can’t tell the difference between a news article and an advertisement.
A lack of trust in government institutions, the political process and fellow citizens has led to low voter turnout rates, with even lower rates for young voters (ages 18-24). Only 50% of young voters voted in the last presidential election.
Despite the strengths of many of our schools and the opportunities presented to our kids, a decreasing amount of time in the classroom is spent learning about democracy and other forms of government, history – including difficult chapters in the story, and the role (and perhaps better stated, the responsibility) we have as citizens. Few forums exist for young people to discuss in an age appropriate way the important current events shaping their world and future globally, nationally and locally.
Equity is an issue. The equal availability of civic learning opportunities is a crisis. The data shows that fewer opportunities for civic learning are presented to low-income students, students not planning to attend college, and students of color. What is particularly concerning about this, is that in those communities that can most benefit from an engaged and active citizenry, where the impact of civic education and increasing civic engagement is greater, the resources allocated to civic education are less.
The civic mission of schools. Historically public schools were created with a civic mission in mind. Encouraging the development of civic skills and mindset among young people has been an important goal of education since the establishment of public schools. Schools are the only institution with the capacity to reach virtually every young person in the country. Despite this, civic education has lost its place as the emphasis is placed on STEM and desire for more academic “rigor”. State level policies are minimizing required curriculum in civic education. Teacher education similarly is not emphasizing civic education outside the basic social studies curriculum. In our conversations with educators, we learned that the political polarization that currently exists sometimes makes civic education a difficult or uncomfortable topic for them to present to their students.
There is magic in civic education. We were truly amazed at what we learned and saw first-hand as the benefits of civic education – far beyond what we originally imagined. First, engaged and informed citizens can ensure that democracy, as the Founders conceived it, will continue to thrive and improve upon itself with each generation. But that isn’t all. There is a strong positive correlation between inclusion of civic education and overall academic performance. Developing a student’s knowledge, skills and mindset as part of a civics education curriculum can build confidence, leadership skills, a feeling of self-efficacy – that one can have a voice and make an impact. For students - and, in particular those students on the margins of our community - it transforms their entire outlook on their future.
Also of particular interest for us was the role civic education plays in improving the overall climate and health of our schools. Curriculum in civics is shown to help students develop tolerance, and the ability to hear and respect differing points of view, and the belief that despite our differences we can be a community that has empathy and understanding.
A greater engagement as youth translates into a greater engagement as adults. With a foundation in civics, we are more likely to vote and engage in political life, work on community issues, and even more likely to consider careers in public service.
So, what’s next? While broad education policy changes are likely needed, and a commitment to civic education starting at the top, smaller meaningful steps also matter. By supporting our amazing educators in the classroom and community organizations, we can start to make a difference by enabling and celebrating classroom and experiential civic learning.
We are never too young (or too old) to learn. Civic learning need not be reserved for 8th grade or high school electives – but can and should start as early as elementary school. Even our youngest citizens show the aptitude to embrace civic learning, through games and play. Cross-generational learning can also be rewarding for all participants. We want to continue to connect citizens of all ages with meaningful ways to explore citizenship. There is a growing network of resources available to do just this, and we have the added benefit of living in Princeton – where the history of civic engagement and our country is literally in our backyards.
We want to end with any important footnote. For us, to talk about citizenship is not to talk just about national citizenship, or people of only certain immigration or birth status, but is about being a member in a local, national and global community regardless of who you are or where you were born.
What started as a desire to teach our boys more about citizenship and civic engagement has turned into a passion for doing what we can to equip all young citizens with the knowledge and skills they need to make the changes they hope to see in their communities. We are excited to share with all of you what we have learned so far, and hope you will join us to support this next generation as they take on one of the most rewarding and important roles that they will ever have. Based on what we have seen so far, they are poised and eager.