Political Participation and Education

Ethan Temple
May 14, 2021
National Policy

Historically speaking, Americans have been on the receiving end of a rather notorious, and utterly, dubious stereotype of being apathetic and/or ignorant towards their politics, seeing as the voter turnout for presidential elections had declined starting at the beginning of the 20th century and has remained close to the 60% mark up until the present day. Midterm turnout is even worse, with only about 45% of the electorate rallying to the polls in the prior election, in 2018. However, this is not to say that Americans are wholly ambivalent to politics; quite the contrary, as many do participate in political discussions in some way. According to the Pew Research Center’s report on Political Engagement, Knowledge, and the midterms, about 67% of Americans have engaged in either limited forms of political engagement, such as supporting a political act or campaign over social media (42%)  to  have fully committed to volunteering or working on a campaign (16%) over the span of 5 years. In spite of this, those that do engage in political activism, or generally speaking political discourse, tend to be older Americans (64% do so on a daily to weekly basis), ideologues that are heavily partisan (average 62% between the liberal Democrats and conservative GOP), and, most importantly to this discussion, better educated citizens (66% of postgraduates discuss politics on a frequent basis). 

What sets education apart in this context is that both ideologues and the elderly are making up a much smaller proportion of the American populace, being gradually replaced by younger citizens of the Millenial and Z generations, yet is these two generations that are scorned most often for being the least politically active of the populace. Is that to say that the younger generations are simply lazy who care not for their country? On a broad scale, no, though there are exceptions; rather, to really expose the issues regarding the general inaction of millennials and the iGen, as well as many issues found in the current American political culture, one must look at our educational standards when it comes to civics and history and analyze just how ineffectual they are relative to our increasingly byzantine political stage. 


As noted, the voting cohorts of the Baby Boomers and Silent Generation are on their way out, to put it euphemistically, leaving the nascent Millenials and Gen Z in their stead, ready to take the mantle when their predecessors truly leave. Politically speaking, the generations of Starbucks and TikTok live in something of a paradox, which is in dire need of redressing: that is, even though these generations have been most recently exposed to the foundational information of civics and history-based education, when it comes to actually comprehending the events that have led up to, and currently transpire, in the political atmosphere in the United States, they have next to no idea what is going on. Due to this, more millennials prefer to identify as independent than align with either mainstream party (44%; however Millenials do align overwhelmingly with Democrats, at about 59%).  

This is an issue seen across the country via the fact that Americans, regardless of their political affiliation or age, are constantly exposed to political information, yet they lack the ability to apply it, which partly explains the notion of American ambivalence towards politics. For example, the same Pew Report asks citizens about what the First Amendment does, and 86% of Americans say that it guarantees the freedom of speech, but when asked about the more esoteric aspects of governance, such as the filibuster, only 41% are able say that it requires 60 votes to move into cloture procedures. While it is beneficial to understand the basics of our Constitutional liberties, not knowing or understanding the nuances and complexities of American governance and politics inhibits the people’s ability to properly participate in civil discourse, and not being able to comprehend even the basics in American democracy undermines trust and thereby popular participation in said democracy. 

This lack in nuanced education partly explains why Americans are so ambivalent to politics on a general level, but what compounds this is that most are unable to even comprehend the basics of America’s political system. According to the Center of American Progress, only 26% of Americans know the three branches of government (executive, legislative and judicial); as noted, not knowing of certain concepts breeds distrust, and this is reflected in the notion that only 18% of Americans trust their government. Such a general lack in knowing even the rudiments of American democracy reflects poorly upon how the United States prioritizes their civics education, and this stems from the fact that Americans are realizing education prospects that are poorly funded and organized relative to STEM and Language Arts programs.  

Per a report authored by the Brown Center, there have been significant strides in math and reading scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, jumping significantly from .06 in 2000 to .52 in 2017 amongst 4th graders and .08 to .35 amongst 8th graders within the same timespan, reflecting a significant bearing down upon these two particular subjects. This translates to an increase from the 50th percentile to the 69th percentile according to the report. Relative to these, civics and social studies-based education realized increases as well, but they were nowhere near as substantial, increasing only to .11 and .20 for 4th and 8th graders between 2000 to 2017, which would translate into far lower percentiles for civics-based educational standards, indicating a significantly lower prioritization of a subject that would translate much better into real-life than knowing how to read Shakespeare or knowing the Pythagorean Theorem.  

Detailed in the same report are the strategies by which states implement in order to educate students on America’s civic nature. According to the report, 42 states and the District of Columbia mandate civics courses, which is on paper a very good sign; however, the quality of said education is not only patchwork (courtesy of America’s education system’s relationship to federalism) but it is, on a broad scale, lackluster. The reason for this is that learning the intricacies of the American political apparatus requires direct contact with the material; that is, being directly exposed to how our system works allows for the most to be absorbed from such activities, similar to that of labs in science-based curricula. This would come from activities like volunteering for a local election or interning with a local, state or federal politician, which would introduce to students a more nuanced perspective at how candidates are elected and what they do once they are in office, allowing them to truly pick up on key pieces of information oft left out of the textbook. 

However, of the 50 states and DC, only 26 reference any sort of process that simulates how America’s political system works, whilst 11 mandate community service-based instruction; the majority of states that do have some sort of civics education standard subject their students to the standard in-class curriculums of lecture and note-taking on the basic concepts of government, with the most common method of disseminating information about politics is through discussion of current events, which 63% of American 12th graders state doing so on a weekly basis, whilst more proactive methods of learning, such as presenting or debating, come nowhere near that statistic, numbering at 10% and 24%, respectively. These curricula do not expound upon important civics-based skills, such as interpreting polling data or researching and explaining key political issues, which are only discussed enough to pass a test, and while discussing current events is a viable tactic, not everyone is able to, nor wants to, watch the news and discuss politics in class, especially given its rather toxic and hyperpartisan nature, especially seeing as they are taking such a class to comprehend said events. A key reason why many students are limited to discussion of current events and not branching out into more esoteric fields is a matter of timing (due to the centralizing focus of an end of year exam like the AP US Government exam taken in May) and finances, as the fiscal year of 2017 saw only $400 million in grants out of a pool of $1.6 billion. In 2019, STEM programs received upward of 3 billion in funding, while civics and social studies programs received a paltry 4 million. This would serve to indicate that social studies programs and organizations do not possess nearly as many resources as their STEM counterparts, which forces social studies programs to rely ever more so on a standardized curriculum that does not equally disseminate much needed information to students who will eventually become the next generation of American voters, bureaucrats, judges, and politicians.

This lack in proactive and engaging stratagems translates into scores on the AP US Government and Politics course examination, which all states utilize, and needless to say, these scores are lackluster at best. The Center of American Progress recorded all 50 states’ AP scores for US Government, which averages out to a 2.64 on the exam; to put this in perspective, colleges typically require a 3 on AP exams to accept a credit in this class, meaning that the average US student would have their scores rejected by college with this score. The variability of this  distribution spans 1.56, with the highest average being Vermont’s, resting at 3.41, the lowest being Mississippi’s at an abysmal 1.88, indicating how students in different states will be adversely affected by such a disparity in educational standards and how one student would have the advantage over another simply by living in another state, which does not make for a properly informed populace where the information being taught will influence how they want their own country to function. 


Unlike many issues being debated on the hill in this current age of hyperpolarization, there is a bipartisan call for education standards to be revamped pursuant to a better informed, and thereby more active, society. There are some commonalities between how this issue should be redressed, with many civics groups calling for the utilization of computer programs and, to the chagrin of many a boomer, video games to advance political comprehension and engagement. Perhaps none are more notable than iCivics, which exposes students across all grades to games that center around specific areas of the American political sphere, from the electoral process to the legislating process to even how laws are interpreted. Of course, as much as games are fun, the most profound way to educate students is through a proper schooling apparatus,  and as was noted, civics programs in schools are woefully underfunded and have much of their grants withheld by the federal government. This prompted a bipartisan caucus of Senators and Congresspeople to draft House Resolution 1814 and S 879, colloquially known as the Civics Secures Democracy Act in either chamber. 

The CSDA, sponsored by Senators Chris Coons (D-DE) and John Cornyn (R-TX) and Representatives Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) and Tom Cole (R-OK), the bill was written up mainly as a vessel for funding and advocating for an improved regimen of civics curricula, as the bill lacks any language that formalizes a national standard for civics based education. What this means is that civics is not to be made a required subject to be taught in all schools across all 50 states per this particular bill. 

What the bill does however is highly substantive, drawing together and addressing two key faculties of civics education in the United States and compiling them into one reform package. This CSD Act will focus principally on reforming how history and civics will be taught and how these programs, as well as associated organizations, are given funding. To address the latter first, as the bill is principally concerned with this issue, it will provide a total of $1 billion in competitive grants to states, non profit organizations, collegiate institutions and independent faculties over the span of 5 years in order to “support education in American civics and education...assist...organizations in developing and implementing programs to [train teachers to effectively educate students on matters of history and civics]...assist organizations in developing or expanding [methods of teaching history and civics]...and to research and evaluate [the knowledge of students on history and civics and the efficacy of adopted teaching models].” These grants will also go towards organizations that promote the learning of, and further exploration, of these subjects. Such an increase in funding would effectively allow for a full overhaul in the social studies programs of many states across the country and thereby improve the political comprehension of the US’s next generation of voters. 

The bill also focuses on liberalizing efforts of teaching the material and cooperation between institutions, while introducing the prospect of measuring the success of this effort via the broadening of the National Assessment of Education Progress. This is found almost exclusively in Section 203 of the bill, which stipulates history and civics courses would be broader than they already were, allowing for more creative and introspective means of learning and interpreting the material on a student by student basis. It will allow for university-affiliated nonprofits to become eligible for education grants so they can advance their own research in the social studies and mandates that schools must allow for a smooth transition of course information between grades, from kindergarten to 12th grade. However, the bill does state specifically that courses on political thought will not be a result of this bill, as it is the goal of the bill to present a nonpartisan education of American government and politics which will allow for students to make up their own political ideas and not have their instructors force them to believe in one thing over the other. The same will be stipulated for history courses as well, which means that neither the whitewashed aspects of history as proposed by former President Trump’s 1776 Commission nor the controversial critical race theory are espoused by this bill. Finally, the bill also pushes for the aforementioned NAEP to be used in grades 4, 8, and finally 12 to develop a better grasp of how effective these efforts are in creating a new generation of politically adept citizens. 



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