The Solution Down the Hall

Don't count on voter mobilization efforts to bring young people into the political process, Daniel Shea and Melissa Comber write. Colleges -- and courses in American government -- have a crucial role to play.

November 6, 2007

During two blustery days last January, a number of youth mobilization scholars and activists from across the nation convened at the Johnson Foundation Wingspread Conference Center at Racine, Wisconsin. The goal of the gathering was to discuss efforts to register and turn out young voters in the previous midterm election, and to chart strategies for the 2008 election. There was considerable excitement, perhaps even jubilation, over the apparent rise in youth voting. We had turned the corner, many proclaimed, and we had reason to celebrate. Peter Levine, of the University of Maryland, reminded the gathering, however, that while youth turnout seemed to be on the rise, a scant 25 percent of those under 30 went to the polls in 2006. In a historic midterm election, just one of four young Americans had bothered to vote.

It was a splash of cold water.

A few months earlier, the Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ISI) had issued a report on the civic literacy of American college students. The report concluded that America’s colleges fail to increase their students’ knowledge about America’s history and institutions, and that students are “no better off than when they arrived in terms of acquiring the knowledge necessary for informed engagement in a democratic republic.” Not only are students not learning what they need to participate in a democracy, but the report found that graduating seniors know less than their freshman counterparts -- a phenomenon the authors of the study term “negative learning.” The nationally representative survey of over 14,000 students highlights a coming crisis in American citizenship and links low levels of political knowledge with lackluster participation in activities related to citizenship.

Part of the culpability rests in the nature of voter mobilization efforts. In the drive to register and mobilize as many young Americans as possible, and to do so at the lowest possible costs, many youth engagement organizations focus on populations predisposed to becoming engaged -- what we might call harvesting the low-hanging fruit A fundamental problem with “more-is-always-better” approach is the premium put on quick contacts. If one technique registers 20 new voters per hour, and the other just 10, the former must surely be “better.”

For most of us working in the youth engagement field - both on campuses and off - the goal is to help create better citizens, not simply new voters. Although we view registration and voter mobilization as important (indeed, the organization that we direct, the Center for Political Participation at Allegheny College, participated in a large, goal-oriented registration program in 2006), we see it as an initial step toward broader engagement and expanded civic enlightenment. Voting is not an end, but rather a beginning.

So what avenues are available to college-level instructors to create better citizens? We believe educational institutions are on the front lines of this important battle. Specifically, introductory courses in American government can provide a wellspring of education for political engagement and civic literacy. In order to maximize the potential of this course, however, there must be a frank discussion of why it is important and how traditional teaching methods often fail to inspire informed and active citizenship.

The ISI study mentioned earlier found that when colleges and universities require history, political science and economics courses, civic learning increases. The study also finds that civic learning increases when an institution is committed to excellence in teaching and pedagogical innovation.

Indeed, at Allegheny College we recently surveyed 350 instructors of college-level American government courses from across the country. Over 89 percent of respondents felt that instructors of American government should work to engage students in the political process, and a full 96 percent believed that an American government college-level course can help engage young Americans.

But achieving this potential will be no easy task. Anyone who instructs an American government course knows the challenges: large classes, a wide range of student abilities, numerous important topics to cover, and cynical and unprepared students. Our survey found the greatest challenge was a lack of student interest. What is an instructor of American government to do with this Catch-22?

We consider the results of the ISI study and our survey to be a call to arms for institutions of higher education and instructors of American government. In particular, the traditional introductory courses in American government hold the key to increasing political knowledge and engaging young citizens. Several states, such as Oklahoma, Texas and California, have mandated basic American government courses for their students, and many colleges and universities have moved in this direction. This equates to quite a broad audience (nearly 800,000 students per year) for up to 45 hours each semester. Some of these students, especially those taking the course only because it is required, are reluctant participants with little previous exposure to political institutions and processes. These students’ political leanings and habits may not be established. The American government course represents an immense opportunity for plugging students into the critical processes of democratic participation.

Political scientists and instructors of American government courses bear a particular burden, as we understand the fragile nature of democracy and the importance of representative citizen participation. Most of us in the field long ago jettisoned the behavioral, value-free approach to political science instruction. We are also the most familiar with new research and potential solutions to the disengagement problem. We have the most opportunities to reach the students who are the least engaged. Luckily for us, we are the ones teaching American government courses – and therefore the ones who have the power to make a significant difference.

We pose the following challenges to two institutions - higher education and philanthropic organizations. To our colleagues who teach American government, we urge you to enter into discussions about the importance of this class and consider requiring it for all political science majors. You may even decide to call upon your college or university to mandate the class for every student. You should also find ways to engage students in course material through active learning and service learning; encourage normative participation, such as in partisan politics; actively teach citizenship skills; and integrate participatory skills with political knowledge.

For our colleagues in philanthropic organizations, we urge you to fund the teaching of citizenship education and the teaching of participatory skills with the same passionate commitment that you fund voter registration drives.

Political scientists bemoan today’s disengaged youth, while occasionally celebrating modest increases in turnout. We decry young people’s lack of knowledge and civic skills and their lack of desire to effectuate change in their democracy. Have we succeeded in our efforts if they vote but are not engaged citizens? The solution is waiting for us in the classroom down the hall. The American government course can and should teach the next generations how to be the keepers of their own government.


Daniel M. Shea is professor of political science and director of the Center for Political Participation at Allegheny College. His most recent books include The Fountain of Youth: Strategies and Tactics to Engage Young Voters, and Living Democracy. Melissa Comber is assistant professor of political science at Allegheny.

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