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Guest Thinkers

Apathy, distrust, and nonparticipation

Linda Fandel’s blog at The Des Moines Register is focused on “world class schools for Iowa.” Kudos to her and the Register for devoting time and attention to this issue.

In a recent guest post advocating better civics instruction, former U.S. Senator John Culver said:

Many young people leave school lacking even a rudimentary understanding of how their government works and how it affects their lives. This lack of understanding leads to a lack of interest, a lack of trust and a lack of participation.

In my comment to his post, I said:

Another reason that students lack interest, trust, or participation in governmental affairs is that many of them are quite cynical about whether Constitutional freedoms even exist. As a 2003 report from the First Amendment Center noted, “Students will not learn the lessons of democracy if they cannot experience firsthand the freedom to make their own choices.” And yet so much of school (and, let’s be honest, home) is about control and lack of trust. Few students get a chance to meaningfully participate in decision-making about their own learning. School restrictions (and accompanying lawsuits) regarding student speech, expression, and behavior have escalated over the past few decades.

Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson, ruling for the majority in West Virginia v. Barnette, said that the Court must ensure “scrupulous protection of constitutional freedoms of the individual, if we are not to strangle the free mind at its source and teach youth to discount important principles of our government as mere platitudes.” Why would we expect young people to be active, engaged citizens upon graduation when they rarely, if ever, get to see their supposed ‘freedoms’ at work? Are we surprised that young adults are apathetic (or is it just realistic?) when their primary interaction with government – school – is in a limiting, suppressive environment that, at every turn, tells them that their voice doesn’t matter? Unlike Athena, who was supposedly born fully-formed from the head of Zeus, our students need practice with both the rights and responsibilities of democratic citizenship before they graduate if we are to accomplish our desire to have an interested, involved citizenry.

What do you think? Do students get adequate opportunities in schools to see their Constitutional rights and responsibilities at work?


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