Civic education and solving social problems

Get a bunch of activists in a room, and before long people will start asking, “But what should we do?

There are many answers to this question including advocacy, direct action and service. One of the most forward thinking answers focuses on K-12 civic education.

Service tends to address the problem (feed the homeless), advocacy tends to address structural inequity (increase the minimum wage), and direct action tends to be some combination of those two (have a food drive while protesting).

But education, it seems to me, addresses the problems in ourselves.

If we were better – if all of us were more equipped to have difficult conversations, to understand pressing social issues, and to know how our institutions should work and do work – then as a society we would be more successful in tackling our problems.

A future where advocacy has resolved all our ills seems implausible, but a future where residents are capable of collaborating and equitably resolving issues gives reason for hope.

So, I was particularly excited  when my colleagues at CIRCLE released a new report this morning: All Together Now: Collaboration and Innovation for Youth Engagement. Coming from CIRCLE’s Commission on Youth Voting and Civic Knowledge, the report is the culmination of a year-long series of ambitious and original research projects.

One particularly compelling point:

“…Research has repeatedly confirmed the following pattern: Young people’s civic engagement is strongly related to their individual and family experiences-for example, whether they receive engaging civics education in school, discuss politics at home, or are contacted by a political campaign. The outcomes-voting and knowledge-vary from state to state. State policies regarding civic education and voting laws also vary. But once we consider all the relevant factors together in one statistical model, the impact of the state laws themselves either vanishes or becomes very small.”

State policies are still important. Personally, I would advocate for same-day voting, no voter ID requirement, and improved civic education. But even if I won all these policy changes, it wouldn’t be enough.

CIRCLE’s research shows that “When a controversy arises in the news, teachers tend to use it as an opportunity for civil debate (94.3%),” but nearly a quarter of these teachers also expressed concern that “parents or other adults would object to ‘bringing politics’ into their classrooms.”

We can do better.

As communities, we should support our schools in having these difficult conversations – modeling for our students the kind of civil deliberation we can’t seem to handle ourselves. As adults, we should engage the young people around us in conversations about politics, current events, and tough issues. We should ask for their help, their engagement, and their turnout on election day.

(CIRCLE also found that “being told to vote by a high school teacher and learning about voting predicted electoral engagement in 2012.”)

And we should make sure that all young people in our communities – whatever their schooling, economic, or family situation – we should make that all young people have opportunities to meaningfully engage.

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