Saturday, October 21, 2006
Voting. Volunteering. Raising money for a charity.
These characteristics of a healthy democracy have been hallmarks of American civic engagement since the days when Alexis de Tocqueville was wandering the nation observing its energetic infancy.
If only they were vigorously embraced by today's youths.
An April to June nationwide survey of 1,700 young Americans by the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning & Engagement (CIRCLE) measured their level of political and community engagement. Although some observers are encouraged by results that showed "higher than expected" numbers for the respondents, who ranged in age from 15 to 25, the percentages should be an eye-opener for anyone who cares about the future of our democracy.
More than 36 percent of those who responded said they volunteer in their communities, and 30 percent said they boycotted a product in protest of either the conditions under which it was made or because of the values of the company that made it. Less than 25 percent said that they had raised money for charities, according to the report.
The obvious question is, "What was expected?" if these numbers are higher than what the researchers anticipated.
Heather Smith, director of the nonprofit Young Voter Strategies, thought the results were positive.
"This is a generation that's just screaming to be paid attention to," Smith said in a recent McClatchy Newspapers story. "They are engaged. They are paying attention. When issues are relevant, they are willing to flex their political muscle."
Defining what's politically relevant to an 18- or 21-year-old is a challenge. Independent candidate Kinky Friedman's Texas gubernatorial campaign is hoping he knows, as he's spending a lot of time on college campuses. Election Day will prove whether the Kinkster's decidedly irreverent message, touted with the assistance of has-been pro wrestler and former Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura, will result in an increase in the percentage of eligible young people voting.
In CIRCLE's test of political knowledge, 56 percent of youths didn't know that only U.S. citizens can vote in elections. Only 30 percent could correctly name any member of President Bush's Cabinet. Of those, 82 percent named Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. (I giggled when reading this on the CIRCLE Web site, given that the report spelled Rice's first name wrong _ twice: Condoleeza and Condelezza.)
As disheartening as the results appear to policy wonks and civics teachers, they do indicate a base upon which to build.
Expecting young people to engage in political and community involvement is less likely to happen if they aren't clear on what an American's civic responsibilities are. The Bill of Rights Institute of Arlington, Va., is offering a way in which students in Texas, Kansas and Virginia can explain to others what it means to be an American _ and possibly win money in the process.
Students in grades 9-12 are encouraged to answer this question in about 500 words:
"What civic value(s) do you believe are most essential to being an American, and how can you personally put those values into practice? To support this personal response, reference a Founding document as well as a figure from American history exemplifying the civic value(s)."
Entries must be submitted by a teacher; contest guidelines are available at www.BeingAnAmerican.org. The essays will be judged by high school teachers from each contest state. The judges will be looking for how well the young writers follow the essay guidelines, plus criteria such as originality, how the writer's thoughts are organized, the writing style and the depth of analysis. The deadline for submission is Jan. 5, 2007.
The first-place author in each state will receive $5,000, with funding made possible by the Pennsylvania-based John Templeton Foundation. Second-prize winners will receive $2,500; third prize, $1,250; and other finalists will receive $250.
Teachers, your part in helping students think and learn about the civic values shared by Americans won't go unrewarded. Teachers who submit the winning essays also receive equivalent cash prizes.
The Bill of Rights Institute also provides lesson plans and other materials that tie the contest into state and national academic standards.
"The United States is said to be the only nation founded not on the ethnicity of its citizens but on their shared commitment to certain ideas and values," said Victoria Hughes, president of the Bill of Rights Institute, in a news release announcing the contest.
Alistair Cooke, the brilliant British-born observer of all things American, said in an Oct. 16, 1969, BBC broadcast:
"In a self-governing Republic _ good government in some places, dubious in others _ three thousand miles wide, eighteen hundred miles long, with fifty separate states which in many important matters have almost absolute powers _ with two hundred million people drawn from scores of nations, what is remarkable is not the conflict between them but the truce."
In a day when this nation often is described as more divided than at any other time in history, it's imperative that American young people recognize and then embrace the values that draw us together.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Jill ``J.R.'' Labbe is deputy editorial page editor of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Readers may write to her at 400 W. 7th Street, Fort Worth, Texas 76102, or via e-mail at email@example.com.
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