Lifestyles Left and Right

Come Back, Miss Guest

Civic illiteracy keeps Americans from voting.

7.8.02

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There was much hand-wringing the other day when the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate reported that voter turnout continued its long, steady decline in this spring's primaries. This time only 16 percent of eligible voters went to the polls, compared to 18 percent in 1998 and 51 percent back in 1966.

For years a number of people (most of them Democrats) complained that it was the difficulty of registering to vote which was depressing participation. As a result, county clerks across the land were forced to forego purging names of registered voters who failed to vote or had moved. Next came "motor voter" laws, requiring that state driver's license bureaus simultaneously register new licensees to vote.

All this had no effect on voter turnout. That would have come as no surprise to Miss Anna Lee Guest, my high school Civics teacher. Were she with us today (unlikely, as she would be about 105) and were she asked to explain why voter turnout keeps dropping, her answer would be something like this:

"It's obvious, dear boy. So few young people are taught Civics these days it's a wonder any of them know enough about the workings of our government and their own rights and responsibilities as citizens to have anything to do with elections."

Civics -- the teaching of how our system of government works and the citizen's rights and responsibilities -- was a course staple in most public school systems from the late 19th Century until the 1970s. Following disillusionment connected with Watergate and Vietnam, Civics was dropped in many districts or made a subsection of American History courses. The result: we have a couple of generations of young Americans who are "civic illiterates," according to the National Alliance for Civic Education.

As evidence, it cites the 1998 National Assessment of Educational Progress, a federal exam. Barely a quarter of eighth-graders identified the State Department as being responsible for carrying out U.S. foreign policy. Among seniors, only 57 percent had even a vague idea of how state government fits into our overall system and how citizens can affect its policies.

That's a far cry from the results Miss Guest and her contemporary Civics teachers got from their charges. As many decades ago as you can count on a hand, Miss Guest was turning High Seniors at Piedmont, California, High School into would-be voters (the eligible age was 21 at the time), and ardent arguers of interpretation of the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution and the workings of Congress and the state legislature.

One faced the senior year with ambivalence: joy at the thought of finishing high school; trepidation at facing Miss Guest's strong voice and demanding standards. There was a great deal of student participation and much role-playing. She saved the best roles for herself, such as George III's mother when he confronted the rebellious American colonists ("George, be a king!").

She was no-nonsense (cut-ups were quickly dispatched to the Dean's Office), but so passionate about the institutions of American representative democracy, that her passion worked its way, osmosis-like, into us. Three-and-a-half years later, when I turned 21, the high point of my birthday was to go downtown to the county court house to register to vote.

In the wake of the September 11 attacks, all of us had reason to count our collective blessings, most importantly, our impulse to immediately pull together as one to confront a great challenge. One echo of that phenomenon is a renewed interest in schools in teaching Civics as a course. A Washington Post story last week reported the case of Allentown, Pennsylvania, where, as an example, fifth-grade students were recently observed in a Civics session debating park clean-up, anti-litter laws, the school dress code and cafeteria seatings. These are the kids who may soon be involved in high school and college student government, then -- who knows -- the state legislature, Congress, even the White House.

Myron E. Yoder, Allentown's social studies chief, said: "If you can show kids they have power to solve a problem, it means they will be more likely to participate in civic affairs as an adult." And that is the whole point, Miss Guest would no doubt agree, pointing a figure right at you and smiling that you-know-I'm-right smile.

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