Civic Engagement

Developing Civic Engagement

Jessica Wheeler, December 2014

During the 2012 election, 55% of eligible voters between the ages of 18 to 29 years old did not vote. In Massachusetts 53.5% of voter between the ages of 18 to 29 years turned out in the 2012 election. Voting was viewed as an honor or privilege that allowed the public to have a voice. Unfortunately voting is now viewed as a burden to most, feeling that their vote will not matter. Viewing the government as something that does not affect their daily life, having the attitude that after the election it is over instead of viewing it as the beginning. The questions are: How to get citizens to vote and be actively involved in the political process? How to develop civic engagement? The answers to those questions are to start with the children by building them into educated and active voters. Teaching children at a young age and throughout their education will create citizens that participant in the political process. This process requires more than a basic understanding of government. Instead, we must build their knowledge base while also cultivating the dispositions and habits required by the duties of citizenship.

The focus of this essay will be on the Commonwealth of Massachusetts but the concepts apply nationally. In the general laws of Massachusetts, Part 1 Title XII Chapter 71 Section 69, is regarding the Pledge of Allegiance and the American flag. The law declares that the flag of the United States be present throughout the school and that the Pledge of Allegiance be recited daily.

The law reads as the following:
Section 69. The school committee shall provide for each schoolhouse under its control, which is not otherwise supplied, flags of the United States… Each teacher at the commencement of the first class of each day in all grades in all public schools shall lead the class in a group recitation of the “Pledge of Allegiance to the Flag”. A flag shall be displayed in each classroom in each such schoolhouse…

What the law does not state is the need for the students to understand the meaning of the pledge and the practice of it.

The Massachusetts Curriculum outlines the framework of learning and the skills that should develop in each grade and subject. Massachusetts History and Social Science Curriculum Framework explain the “academic content, concepts, and skills in history, geography, economics, and civics and government that are essential to all American citizens”. The curriculum also states that each grade is suppose to build upon the knowledge that each child gains from the previous grade, but it does not say anything about going back to the concepts that were developed in previous grades and expanding or advancing that knowledge.

In elementary school, students learn the words to the Pledge of Allegiance and have a simple understanding of the meaning of this repeated ritual and the words themselves, learn to compare and contrast distinguished individuals, learn about the formative years of U.S. history and world geography, and the political aspects of the people, government, and economics. In high school students learn about economics and government, world history, and U.S. history. These topics are not review again in a child’s education. The topics that are discussed in these grades are important for citizens to have more than a simple understanding of them. There is a need for these topics to be taught more than just one year of someone education. Students just learn for the moment to pass their test, but don’t retain the information for future use. Without this retention the information is lost. These topics along with the Pledge of Allegiance, the understanding of distinguished individuals and of political aspects of the country should be examined thoroughly and throughout the educational process because of their complexity and the comprehension of children in these lower grades is simplistic in their meanings.

This education is intended to prepare the students for the real world and for further secondary education. However, this is not the case. Students are just going through the motions because they are told they have to be in school. If there is no interest, there is no retention of the subject matter. Schools need to get their attention and their interest in learning so they might retain it long term. Levine (2009) as quoted by Fleming suggest “other activities, including service learning, mock trails and other simulations related to citizenship, as well as participation in student government, the school newspaper, or community research projects”. Through most schools do offer some of these activities; participation is not mandatory. They are usually extra-curricular at the end of the day. Students are either not able or willing to stay after school for these activities. Students are in school for six hours a day and are not interested in staying any longer then they have to. If these activities were to be immersed with the regular curriculum, more students may get involved. The focus of the education should be aimed at getting students to be involved and, in turn, create adult who are more active in society.

There are programs out there that have worked for other districts across the United States. Two examples of programs that are focused of developing civic engagement are Justice Teaching and Kid Voting USA. These two programs set forth a new concept of teaching that enforces student involvement.

Justice Teaching, proposed by Florida’s Chief Justice R. Fred Lewis, was put in place to educate students about “constitutional values in the face of current problems…’[and] understand the citizen’s duty”. Lewis describes Justice Teaching as a structure that will connect judges and legal professionals with the schools and will act as a resource to better educate students about the government, legal process, and civic duty. This program is design to challenge the students intellectually as well as verbally so that students can gain a creative and unique way to learn. “Through Justice Teaching, the education of Florida’s students and, in turn, the civic knowledge of our general populace, will grow geometrically as more attorneys, judges, professionals, and educators become involved”.

Kid Voting USA (KVUSA) is a national nonprofit program founded in 1987 by three men: Jennings; R.R. Evans, CEO of Evans Management; and Charles A. Wahlheim, president of Joe Woods Development. The mission of the KVUSA is to increase the turnout of voters by getting children involved in the process and sequentially improve the voter turnout in the future generations of Americans. The KVUSA is a program that a community can sign up to be a member of. The program combines the practice of voting with the children’s curriculum. The curriculum is set up to encourage the students to actively participate in the political process. These activities include watching debates on television, read and discuss the candidates and issues locally and nationally, hold practice votes, and mock debates. KVUSA transforms the major aspects necessary for knowledgeable and engaged civic participation. The program equips students with the habits and skills necessary for a life of civic participation. They begin to broaden their discussion networks and when the time comes, they increase their voter turnout rates. “In 1990 Arizona saw a remarkable 95 percent of school participation”. Adults too are caught up in the wave of political engagement. Adults begin following and discussing politics with a broadening array of people, and like their children, they flock to the polls in higher numbers.

Programs like these should be adopted into the curriculum of schools and spread throughout the grades of an elementary education. Doing so, will turn out more informed and willing voters once they graduate high school and become eligible to vote. “While the impact… [teaching] will not be felt overnight, we sincerely believe that in the long term it will have a fundamental impact on the youth and citizens … in an educationally positive manner”.

The reality is that our young people and future generations must understand that it is our constitutional framework and the freedom and liberty it provides which constitutes the glue that hold this society together. If we are unable to make today’s youth as enthusiastic, educated, and concerned about and involved with our constitutional democracy as they currently are about reality television “idols,” the promise of our constitutional framework and the protection of individual rights and freedoms created by that framework may be in jeopardy.

Notes and Further Reading

Fleming, Louis Conn. “Civic Participation: A Curriculum for Democracy”, American Secondary Education, 40, no. 1, (2011).
Hall, John Stuart, and Patricia M. Jones. “Elections and Civic Education: The Case of Kids Voting USA,” National Civic Review 87, no. 1 (1998): 79-84.
Lewis, R. Fred. “A Call to Justice: The Importance of Civic Education”, The Florida Bar Journal (2006).
Massachusetts Department of Education. Massachusetts History and Social Science Curriculum Framework, August 2003, (25 October 2014)
Taylor, Paul, and Mark Hugo Lopez. Six take-aways from the Census Bureau’s voting report, 8 May 2013, ( 25 October 2014).
“Civic Youth,” Youth Voting, 2012, CIRCLE_2013FS_outhVoting2012FINAL.pdf (25 October 2014).
“The 188th General Court of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts,” General law, 2014, (25 October 2014).
Abowitz, Kathleen Knight, and Jason Harnish. “Contemporary Discourses of Citizenship.”
Review of Educational Research 76, no. 4 (2006): 653-690.
Banks, James A. “Human Rights, Diversity, and Citizenship Education.” The Educational Forum 73, no. 2 (2009): 100-110.
Cohen, Elizabeth F. “Citizenship and the Law of Time in the United States.” Duke Journal of Constitutional Law and Public Policy 8, no. 1 (2013): 53-79.
Feinberg, Joseph R., and Frans H. Doppen. “High School Students’ Knowledge and Notions of Citizenship.” The Social Studies 101, no. 3 (2010): 111-116.
Glickman, Carl. “Educating for Citizenship.” The Education Digest 74, no. 8 (2009): 50-56.
Howe, R. Brian, and Katherine Covell. “Engaging Children in Citizenship Education: A Children’s Rights Perspective.” The Journal of Education Thought 43, no. 1 (2009): 21-44.
Stock, Margaret D. “Is Birthright Citizenship Good for America?” Cato Journal 32, no. 1 (2012): 139-157.

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