Skip to main content
article icon

Reluctant citizens

news | Published in TES magazine on 30 May, 2014

Young people everywhere are disengaging from the democratic process. Laura McInerney finds out why – and asks whether it is up to schools to do something about it

December 1965 was an unusually warm month in Des Moines, Iowa, and revolution was in the air. Love for the American way of life was on the wane as British artists invaded the Billboard music charts. Few teenagers could escape hearing the Beatles, the Rolling Stones or Petula Clark on the radio. Escalating military intervention in Vietnam and the compulsory drafting of young men had left many Americans feeling alienated from their president, Lyndon Johnson, and angry at the loss of life.

Into this heated atmosphere came three high school students – John Tinker, his friend Christopher Eckhardt and John’s younger sister Mary Beth. After listening in to an anti-war meeting held at the Tinker house, the three decided to make a protest of their own against continued intervention in Vietnam. Each would wear a black armband to school from 16 December until New Year’s Day.

With the mild winter sparing them the need for jackets, the trio’s demonstration would have been seen by everyone. But after catching wind of the plan, the principals of their schools took action in the manner of many an educational leader faced with “rebellious” behaviour: they issued a warning. In an effort to prevent – or at the very least contain – the protest, the principals informed all students that anyone entering school grounds wearing an armband would be asked to remove it. If they refused, they would be sent home.

On 16 December, Mary Beth and Christopher were sent home. On 17 December, John joined them. All three stayed there until New Year’s Day. With another set of students, that might have been the end of the story. But the Tinker family were in no mood to back down on what they saw as a fundamental point of principle. Three years and countless district court appeals later, they stood before the Supreme Court on 12 November 1968 and asserted yet again that this exclusion had contravened their constitutional rights, pointing out that the First Amendment prohibited any law from “abridging the freedom of speech”.

The justices ruled seven to two in favour of the Tinkers, stating that as long as a student’s political actions were not disrupting learning then schools could not dismiss such actions simply to “avoid the discomfort and unpleasantness that always accompany an unpopular viewpoint”.

The case enshrined into law the right of any US high school student to express a political opinion. School leaders panicked that they would be overwhelmed by a wave of resistance. But that is not what happened. Despite their affirmed rights, young people in the US – as in much of the developed world, not least the UK – appear to have become less and less political since this high-water mark.

Less than half of 18- to 24-year-olds voted in the 2012 presidential elections. By contrast, 75 per cent of people aged 55 and over voted. The numbers in the UK are strikingly similar. Although this is unsurprising, there is a puzzle here. Across all age groups, uneducated people vote at far lower rates. In the US, for example, only 25 per cent of high school dropouts vote compared with 70 per cent of those with master’s degrees. In 1950, the average American stayed in school until 9th grade (around their 16th birthday). By 1990, the average American had at least one year of university education. Young Americans are therefore consuming more education than ever, yet their participation rate is not only low but declining. How is this possible?

At present there is no clear answer. But, as with so many social problems, policymakers are ready to jump on the idea that schools should be the solution. They reason that if schools teach politics then students might become more aware and more interested. Yet the truth of this is contestable.

This could not be more explicit than in Scotland, where the age of enfranchisement has been lowered to 16 for the forthcoming independence referendum. Teachers across the country are being pressured to make sure their charges engage with the debate and make an informed choice. The wider UK school system is also likely to feel the heat as the 2015 general election looms into view. Turnout in last week’s Euro elections was disappointingly low among young people.

But asking schools to step in is problematic. First, it is not always clear what people mean when they say “children should be taught politics”. The name of the subject in which students learn about their government differs according to country. Social studies, civics and citizenship are all common terms, with the choice sometimes reflecting the purpose of the programme. In China, for example, “citizenship” reflects the curricular aim of developing citizens who hold certain values. Countries that use the term “social studies” tend to prefer students to look more objectively at social issues. And in others, these two ideas are blended. For example, South Korea teaches “disciplined life”, a combination of social studies and moral education.

Political communication

Does such school teaching make a difference to the political knowledge and engagement of young people? In the US at least, it appears that it might not.

Although social studies and civics commonly form part of the curriculum, children are not retaining what is taught. In 2010, the US government used the country’s annual NAEP (National Assessment of Educational Progress) tests to measure the political knowledge of 14-year-olds. (The NAEP exams are taken each year by a representative sample of students as a way of monitoring their knowledge.)

Asked questions such as “who is Martin Luther King?” or to name constitutional rights, only 22 per cent of students scored at the proficient or higher level.

Incensed by students’ lack of basic knowledge about government, Robert Pondiscio – a former fifth-grade teacher who now works with students in Harlem, New York City – has made it his mission to ensure that by 2025 every US high school student should be able to pass the American citizenship test. Writing in The Atlantic magazine last year, Pondiscio pointed out that 97.5 per cent of naturalising citizens pass this test, yet when Americans sit it, one in three of them fails.

Focusing on factual knowledge, however, is not to everyone’s taste. Back in Des Moines, the Tinker children were not prompted to action by learning the names of political institutions. Instead, they were influenced by their parents, who invited them to anti-war meetings in their living room.

Many educators therefore believe that if you want to get students politically engaged, you need to be a role model for social action and push them into taking part. This fits very neatly with the way Barack Obama’s first presidential campaign attracted youthful supporters in their hundreds of thousands through its message of community organising.

This view is echoed by doctoral researcher Matthew Spialek, who specialises in political communication at the University of Missouri. “We shouldn’t just isolate politics to something you learn in a class about governments,” he says. “We can’t truly separate ourselves from politics. We’re not just a citizen in class, or on election day – we are a citizen every day.”

As part of his research, Spialek oversaw the teaching of eight first-year college classes. Four of the groups were taught a straightforward political communication class. The other four were taught the same materials but with added activities requiring “political engagement”.

For example, all the students were asked to analyse and create persuasive speeches that included a “call to action”, but the group tasked with greater engagement had to “actually go away and implement that call”, Spialek says.

I ask if these politically engaged activities included “service learning”, a phrase often used by social studies teachers to cover actions associated with volunteering, such as working in care homes or litter-picking. Spialek frowns and launches into a tale he heard from a fellow academic: “The problem of service learning is best described by the story of a student who had taken part in an experience at a soup kitchen serving homeless people. At the end, the student said how great it had been, saying: ‘I hope one day my grandkids can experience this same opportunity.’

“He had thought the situation was OK as it was. A politically engaged person would say they wanted to make it so that their grandkids didn’t live in a world that needed soup kitchens.”

But does forcing students to take part in political action make a difference to them? Yes. Sort of. Spialek’s results suggest that average- to high-ability students become more positive about and more motivated to understand politics when engaged in active learning. For them, being pushed to engage is productive. On the downside, at-risk students exhibited more negative feelings and lower motivation in the class that encouraged them to engage than they did in the straightforward “knowledge” course. We might want this group of young people to become more politically aware but pushing them into it is counterproductive.

Thankfully, all is not lost. Spialek holds one last trump card. Although the at-risk students who completed the active engagement tasks were less motivated, they nevertheless learned more than those in the straightforward course. His hope is that by gaining this knowledge they might begin to feel more positive in the future. “There’s still some benefit to it all in the end,” Spialek says, cheerily. One hopes he is right.

Elitism in action

Although US teachers fret about the emphasis put on active learning versus traditional knowledge-based classes, in Singapore there is no such debate. There, students are tracked into highly differentiated vocational or academic streams aged 13, and the type of citizenship teaching they receive depends heavily on their placement. Whereas elite students are taught to think critically and question democratic ideals, vocational students are taught using government-mandated textbooks that emphasise the need to uphold a stable social order.

The disparities are not accidental. When Singapore’s new national education framework was introduced in 1997, the Ministry of Education’s press release stated that the courses were designed to reflect that students of different ability levels had different needs. Elite students were to be taught that “advocacy is the moral responsibility of a leader” whereas those in the vocational track were instructed to have “confidence in the nation” – the very definition of Confucian elitism at work in the 21st century. This probably isn’t going to help an overworked Scottish history teacher keen for his adolescent class to decide whether SNP leader Alex Salmond is making a compelling case for joining the euro.

Indeed, the idea that political teaching should be given only to those deemed trustworthy would seem abhorrent to many. But it is not that unusual a view. Thomas Jefferson’s proposal in the 19th century for a system of public education – which later formed the basis for the US high school structure – was designed to help select children who could become part of a future elite that would run the country. Jefferson wrote that the students would be “chosen for the superiority of their parts and disposition” and then given a liberal education. The rest would be workers rather than leaders, and hence no such knowledge would be needed.

So, what to do about this global disengagement with politics? On the one hand it seems obvious that knowledge is important to close the gap between educated and uneducated voters, yet that knowledge does not necessarily lead people to vote or take part in political action.

Assuming that we think young people ought to be doing these things, it seems intuitive that we model how they should do this and then send them out into the world to achieve the same. Yet Spialek’s research shows that this might be unproductive if they are not ready for the challenge.

But perhaps we are missing one final piece of the puzzle that can explain students’ reluctance to partake in civic life. It is found way back in Des Moines, 1965. How often do we think the principals of those schools addressed their students on the importance of acting as responsible citizens? And yet, when faced with the reality of three young people actually doing what many school leaders dream of, they baulked and set about quashing any possible dissent.

We can teach students any number of facts, and those are vital. But if we really want young people to understand politics, we must heed the words of the Supreme Court and allow them to express their ideas in a political fashion, even when that makes us feel uncomfortable.

Laura McInerney is a PhD student at the University of Missouri, US, a Fulbright Award recipient and a former teacher in East London

‘I know I’ll be able to make a difference in the future only if I engage in the present’

Tony Diver, a Year 12 student at King Edward VI School in Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk, writes:

The current political climate must be pretty boring for my parents. They grew up in a time of Thatcherism, of police battles with protesters, of the mutiny within government. To them, the Westminster tales of the modern day must be comparatively drab.

Tony Blair’s successive governments brought Britain into an age of consensus politics, where parties clash on mechanisms but agree on goals – where the debates are parliamentary policy punch-ups, not the sustained ideological battles of the 1980s.

Some say that’s a good thing – that there’s little electoral interest among the young because there’s not much left to fight over, and that my parents’ apathy as voters is actually “happathy”. Who cares if the youth of today have got more to be doing than picketing the government?

That sort of mentality is dangerous – being happy to accept an “us and them” arrangement because we’re not really interested in what happens. It means that we’re less likely to engage when it all goes wrong, as it did in 2008, and more likely just to blame the Establishment in general. If we never have an opinion, we have no licence to complain about the decisions that are made.

That’s why, at the age of 16, I care about politics. I know that I’ll be able to make a difference in the future only if I make an effort to engage in the present. The classroom and common room, school council and debating society are ideal places for a political conversation. They’re not full of people with entrenched beliefs but those who want to learn and discuss. We need those conversations in schools, or we might all end up like my parents.

Campaign materials

Spark political debate in your own classroom with these resources on issues from Scottish independence to the parliamentary party system.


Subscribe to the magazine

as yet unrated

Add your comment

Subscribe to the magazine

Related articles

More Articles

Join TES for free now

Join TES for free now

Four great reasons to join today...

1. Be part of the largest network of teachers in the world – over 2m members
2. Download over 600,000 free teaching resources
3. Get a personalized email of the most relevant resources for you delivered to your inbox.
4. Find out first about the latest jobs in education