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On October 8th, National Public Radio’s senior correspondents, Anya Kamanentz and Cory Tucker interviewed four of Culture of Dignity’s teen editorial advisors for their LifeKit Podcast on civic education. Culture of Dignity’s co-directors of the Navigating Politics with Dignity in the New Decade initiative, Sara Davis, 18 from Longmont CO and Taylor Pittman, 18, from New Orleans, LA were joined by editorial advisors, Jake Chang, 16, from Cypress CA and Gus Kraft, 16, from Upper Saddle River NJ to discuss the upcoming election and civic education. To accompany the podcast, they wrote this article to share what they see is most important for adults to know about young people’s experience with civic education in the United States. 

How to Make Civics Education Matter

By Taylor Pittman, Sara Davis, Jake Chang, and Gus Kraft

 

We deeply appreciate NPR giving us the opportunity to share our experiences and opinions on what young people need to be taught in civic education. Not only because we know how important civics education is but because it is essential for young people who receive civic education to be asked what they need. From when it is taught in middle and high school, to how it is taught and what content is covered, young people need to work with experts in civic education so they can bring their knowledge and apply it to the reality that is the political landscape today. 

Civic education is all about learning how to be adults in the modern world. We want our civics education to reflect that. We don’t understand why something so important to learn in order to be a contributing citizen of the United States is not more of a priority in our education. We also want adults to be open to hard conversation and ready to communicate about the political process so we are more prepared for the world. Otherwise, and is often the case, civics education becomes another part of our education that disengages us from actually learning and being educated citizens. 

Here’s what we recommend:

Civic Education that Relates to Our Lives Now

Even though many young people do not get good civics education, we still want to be active in the political process. If we don’t receive it in school, we will most likely turn to social media to get our information. Taylor had no idea who Donald Trump was until he started trending on Twitter in 2016. Nothing at school teaches her to be engaged in voting, to learn about the candidates, or the political process. Until this year, we were frustrated with the media because it didn’t want us to participate. But during this election cycle, we see more on social media about why we should vote and more encouragement to do early voting on social platforms. Some of Taylor’s friends who are never interested in voting saw constant posts on their Instagram feed of voting resources and got more interested in voting. As a way to encourage them to vote, Taylor said to them that it takes about the same amount of time to create an Instagram account as it does to register to vote. We use this example to demonstrate why it’s important to make civics education relatable and how important it is to have young people involved in the content of civics education. Think about it: Does any civic education in the country compare the time it takes to register to vote to creating an Instagram account? 

Ask for Feedback from a Range of Students

We have rarely, if ever, been asked to participate in recognizing what we need in our education. Even when schools do ask young people their opinions, they typically reach out to students who excel in school, participate in school clubs and other extracurriculars; as in the kids adults like. Schools don’t typically reach out to the students that school isn’t working for and aren’t perfect on paper. Excluding these students reinforces the belief that they don’t have a place in school, aren’t recognized as being able to contribute, or are just invisible. “School” is an institution and a community and it’s where most young people have experiences, for better or worse, with both. They take the lessons they learn from interacting with school as an institution and apply it to their overall beliefs in our political process. That’s why civics education is a direct link to civic engagement; it has to work for everyone to encourage political participation.

Acknowledge That You May Be Asking the Wrong Questions:

Now that we have said ask us, it probably seems reasonable to ask us “What do you need from your education?” But that’s like asking “What do you need from Walmart?” For many young people, we don’t even know where to start because we haven’t had the opportunity to to understand what we don’t know. Asking students general questions doesn’t work. We need to be asked about our experiences to gauge what history we have with civic issues and then help us understand how these issues impact us, our communities and our country. We need to get a full understanding of the impact of different political problems, because then we can see how they affect the people around us. 

Adults say they want young people to be educated citizens. We want to be educated citizens as well; with the skills and knowledge to rebuild our democracy and meet the substantial challenges our country faces. Bring us into the process by recognizing that our voices and experiences matter. 

Make Civics Education Equitable

Our education of civics is influenced by the funding and resources that our schools receive which means it can be difficult to get kids from historically impoverished areas involved in a system that doesn’t care about them. It’s like expecting someone to speak up after being ignored; they expect to be ignored. So what can we do about it?

We need to show every student that civics is essential to them. Their lack of political interest is not a mystery; their education refuses to take accountability for its own failings. We can change this by representing minority communities in America, updating our history textbooks to reflect modern movements, train and allow our teachers to facilitate rigorous discussions about our rights and responsibilities as citizens, and show how every student can make a meaningful contribution in our society. It’s not enough to just have civics classes without changing the curriculum itself. We need to show that all students are represented and take inspiration as a model for being active citizens. We need to see that we have a voice and are recognized by adults as people who can contribute to our communities. 

Thank you Anya and Cory for giving us that opportunity.