February 29, 2024

Civic Education Must be Made Priority for Young People, Panel Says

Photo of two men participating in a panel discussion

Crossposted with written permission from Wesleyan University. View the full article here.

There are 68 million young people between the ages of 10 to 24 in the United States who will be entering the public sphere in the coming years, according to Rajiv Vinnakota, president of the Institute for Citizens and Scholars. This makes up nearly one-fifth of the current population in the nation, but a significant segment of this country’s future. This group must be taught how to become developed citizens at a moment of democracy when it is mired in misinformation and political handwringing on all sides.

“Our challenge is developing effective citizens,” Vinnakota said while participating in the civic education panel discussion of the Democracy in Action convening at Wesleyan University on Feb. 17, “…first being civically well informed. The second category is about being productively engaged for the common good.”

Career educator Challa Flemming ’02, Joseph Kahne, co-director of the Civic Engagement Research Group at University of California, Riverside, and author and professor Celina Su ’99 joined Vinnakota in a panel discussion on the importance of educating the next generation of citizens, what role higher education plays in cultivating them, and how to keep students engaged in public life. The panel was moderated by Assistant Professor of Government Alisha Butler.

To accomplish this, panelists highlighted some key areas of improvement. Flemming said that civic education must be made a priority in K to 12 schooling, saying it’s often the first content area to go when time constraints arise. Su and Kahne championed listening to young people to better inform the policy changes that need to be made.

“If we aren’t listening to young people, our chances of success are much lower,” Kahne said.

Vinnakota pointed toward the rising apathy of the younger generation toward democracy, as found in a national survey that Citizens and Scholars commissioned last September.

“I’d say the single most important thing that we can do is to be able to demonstrate pathways for how democracy can meet the needs of young people,” Vinnakota said. “The real challenge we have is that young people are just turning off on democracy because they’re looking up and saying, ‘you know what, there are existential issues that I’m staring at, that we’re all seeing, and this form of self-government is not going to fix them.’”

It starts by giving young folks the tools—the knowledge—to first engage with civic life through education in K to 12 schools. Students must know what power they possess in a democracy before they can wield it. Once students know what systems are in place and what needs to be fixed, then they can begin to engage with potential solutions through civic action.

“Our democracy is necessary because of the injustices that persist in our society,” Flemming said. “We have to help our students understand those injustices, where they’ve come from, and why they persist, so that we are able to set our students on a path where they can actively fight against those things.”

One way to get young people to buy into how democracy can benefit them is to give them a voice within their school and local budgets, or participatory budgeting. Su highlighted a case where some city council members in New York City engaged with students to better understand their needs.

“They all wanted state parks for the first few minutes, but within five minutes they were talking about things that well-intentioned planners at City Hall downtown talk about,” Su said. She said the city now dedicates a small portion of money for each school to be decided through participatory budgeting.

Once students make it through primary education, they have the option to pursue one final frontier—higher education. Vinnakota recalled a conversation with President Michael S. Roth ’78 in 2020, when Vinnakota thought higher education was failing to center civic engagement and citizen development. He then built a consortium of 25 college presidents, including Roth, called College Presidents for Civic Preparedness to ensure young people are “well-informed, productively engaged, and committed citizens,” the organization’s website said.

“Higher education needs to take greater responsibility for this,” Vinnakota said. “…It is a requirement for us to be able to be part of the work of building the kinds of citizens we need.”

Convening attendee Yinka Vaughan ’27 suggested that schools place a higher priority on social studies and civics classes. He also said he’s currently working with a friend to develop an education website for young students in his home country of Nigeria. He noted his mother is a high school teacher back home and he has seen the effects of budget cuts firsthand.

“[The panel] made me think about more how we define democracy,” Vaughan said. “About how [democracy] is not just elections that happen. Are the right people voting in those elections? Are those elections producing desired results? How there can be a disconnect between policies and the people that they are meant for.”

Wesleyan parent Eddie Yu P’24, who also attended the convening, said he came to the panel because he is worried about the current state of democracy in the United States. He said he was hoping to see if there was “anything that we as a small citizen can do to either help or promote democracy.”

Yu said that higher education must play a “more active role” in fostering democracy and citizen development can start “no later” than the stage of life higher education largely serves—18- to 22-year-olds.

Read the full article here.