Why teenagers are bored by civics


Most American teenagers don’t talk about politics — not at home, not with their friends, not even at school.

Nowhere in their daily lives do they engage in substantive discussions about critical issues like immigration reform or trade protection, or even hot button issues like gay rights, gender equality or police brutality.

Last week, Prof. Jennifer Lawless of American University spoke in Minneapolis about her new book, Running from Office. (I heard the broadcast on MPR, which you can find here.)  She cited statistics from her research, which included surveys of 4200 high school and college-age students. She found:

  • 75% never talk about politics at home
  • 50% have never had a single conversation about politics with their parents
  • 65% have never had a conversation about anything political with their classmates

Here is an enlightening quote from one student, Rebecca: “We just don’t care about politics. We focus on other things, the things that matter, places where we can make a difference.”

Lawless’s primary concern is young people’s lack of political ambition, their unwillingness to even consider running for office in today’s toxic political environment.

I have different concerns. Why aren’t our schools engaging students in thoughtful political discussions? How is it that only one-third of students engage in political discussions with classmates? How are we preparing them for citizenship?

40 of 50 states require some type of civics or government instruction in high school. What is being taught? I have a pretty good hunch — it’s mostly the nuts and bolts of how our government works (or is supposed to).

The Minnesota Social Studies standards include a bland civics component — “Demonstrate skills that enable people to monitor and influence state, local and national affairs” —  among the 35 standards for a government class, but discussion and debate are hardly emphasized.

Textbooks and test banks, which too often determine the direction of curriculum, emphasize boring (and easily tested) questions like:

Which of the following best describes how powers are distributed to the branches of government under the Constitution?

  • No branch has the power to limit actions of any other branch
  • Congress has most of the power, and the President follows the laws
  • The President has most of the power, and Congress plays an advisory role
  • Each branch as the power to limit actions of the other branches

Of course high school students should learn the separation of powers, but that can’t be the main focus. It’s like teaching someone who hates nature how to go camping. The first priority of a government/civics curriculum must be to ignite students’ interest. Once they care about influencing decisions, then explain how the system works.

At least a few states seem to be trying to do this. According to civicyouth.org, Hawaii expects students to “distinguish information that is relevant or irrelevant, analyze and accept multiple perspectives and interpretations, debate positions on issues regarding rights and responsibilities…”

The new Illinois civics requirement, adopted this year, states: “Civics course content shall focus on government institutions, the discussion of current and controversial issues, service learning and simulations of the democratic process.”

According to the Chicago Tribune, this new requirement is making teachers nervous. No wonder — most are not used to promoting or managing the discussion of controversial issues.

Over the years, I’ve told countless colleagues nationwide about the impassioned classroom debates my students have had about flag burning, hate speech, gun control, abortion, and same-sex marriage. I almost always get the same reaction: They let you teach that?

Yes, I was allowed to teach discussion of current and controversial issues in an elective course called Civil Liberties, but it wasn’t officially encouraged and it certainly wasn’t required. I did it because I wanted my students to care and to learn critical thinking skills. It worked.

If you are teaching students civics or government, think about your mission. Grab students attention. Tell them your school board might consider a policy to confiscate all cell phones. Tell them your state might increase the driver’s license age, work-permit age or drinking age.

Find a topic that is close to their hearts, and get them concerned. Make your students understand that elected officials make decisions that will impact their lives. Once they care about the issues, then and only then teach them the process.

And if you run out of time for lecturing on textbook content like committee hierarchies and the cloture rule, let it go. Adults can function just fine without a textbook knowledge of the political process, but our nation can’t function well without citizens who care.