July | August 2017

by Katherine Barrett and Richard Greene
It doesn’t matter what your political beliefs are—whether you tend to vote for Democrats or Republicans—it’s undeniably true that the United States confronts particularly contentious times when it comes to its government. This provides a breeding ground for a kind of civic anemia; a lack of trust in
the government and its leaders to make the best decisions.
“When all that the public sees is partisan bickering and partisanship, that overrides attention to efforts to accomplish good public policy,” said Gerald Wright, a professor and chairman of
the department of political science at Indiana University.
With that in mind, it’s critical for young people in America to see the rest of the story—how government actually can work to give them safer, healthier lives. A natural platform for addressing issues related to government with young people is the classroom. As we wrote last year in a paper for The Council of State Governments, “How, indeed, can anyone trust a powerful entity that they don’t understand? It’s a basic element of human nature that ignorance leads inexorably to mistrust.”
This is true for all three levels of government. In fact, according to a September 2016 Gallup poll about 37 percent of Americans surveyed indicated that they had little trust or confidence in their states. “If young people are unaware of how government works—and you combine that with a time in our history when there are record levels of disengagement, you have a huge distrust in our government processes,” said Ted McConnell, executive director of the Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools.
McConnell makes an important differentiation between civic education and the kind of U.S. history courses that are ubiquitous in the schools. “When we reduce instruction to names, dates and battles, we lose the essence of the American democratic republic experience,” he said.
Unfortunately, the nation’s schools have been generally unhelpful in providing the kind of information that can teach students how their governments actually work. Though more than 40 states require some kind of course in American government or civics, that doesn’t necessarily equate to the kind of classwork that provides young people with the background necessary for a true understanding of the way their city, state and federal governments function. The requirements for these courses can be rather lean and rarely focus on states and localities.
In fact, only 23 percent of eighth graders scored at or above proficiency in civics, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress’ 2014 research.
Of course, the ramifications of lack of trust in government tend to be largely anecdotal. But there’s little doubt that it has an impact on voter turnout in this country. The absence of sufficient civic education is clearly one of the reasons why the U.S. ranked 31 out of 35 countries for voter turnout among the nations that are part of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, according to the Pew Research Center.
This phenomenon was well explained in a report done by the Commission on Youth Voting and Civic Knowledge. The authors stated that: “Civic Education courses and programs in high school (including extracurricular programs such as mock trial and modules like Kids Voting USA that are embedded in courses) have significant positive impacts on voting after graduation. These courses may boost voting by enhancing students’ knowledge, interest in politics and issues, habits of discussing politics, and sense of membership and obligation.”
The report makes special note of activities that take place outside of the classroom for good reason. Experts agree that means for giving students the opportunity to participate in, or observe, government in action can be more effective than a classroom lecture.
“We’re trying to bridge the gap by getting students more engaged themselves, more internships, and we expect that will increase civic commitment among students,” Wright said. “There is a lot of anecdotal evidence that works. When students spend time in a mayoral department or a police department it increases their sense of the efficacy of government.”
Sue Crawford is a state senator representing the Bellevue area of Nebraska, and is also a professor of political science at Creighton University. One exercise that she uses in her introductory classes is asking students to go visit a local meeting. “That’s important because they see that people in these government positions are ordinary people,” Crawford said. “They don’t see elected officials as some other kind of person, a selfish or corrupt person.”
We can certainly understand that. In our own lives, we frequently encounter well-educated men and women who automatically correlate “government worker” with “lazy.”
But when people attend town meetings, sessions of state legislatures or hearings about proposed projects, they begin to recognize the incredible amount of work that the people sitting behind the dais are putting in and they get a far different impression. They see dedicated—often passionate—people who are putting in nights and weekends reviewing budgets, talking to constituents, considering options for economic development and so on. The false stereotypes morph into more realistic portraits of people who are working on their behalf—often for very little in the way of compensation.
One message that needs to be communicated, however, is that whatever goes on in the meetings young people attend, it’s likely going to take a long while for anything to actually change. The recognition that a decision to build a new road can take years to come to reality can help immunize students from coming to the conclusion that government is all talk, and no action.
“When we study history in school, we talk about Rosa Parks for 15 minutes,” Crawford said. “But we often lose the part that she spent months preparing. It wasn’t that just one day she stood up and all of a sudden we have a civil rights movement.”
About the Author
CSG Senior Fellows Katherine Barrett and Richard Greene are experts on state government who work with Governing magazine, the Volcker Alliance, the National Academy of Public Administration and others. As CSG senior fellows, Barrett and Greene serve as advisers on state government policy and programming and assist in identifying emerging trends affecting states.