take civics out of the textbook and into a hands-on campaign, and apathy starts to dissolve
NORTHFIELD, MASS. — The Gore campaign manager is biting his nails. His candidate won California - a huge victory - but the incoming numbers show Florida, Washington, and, more surprisingly, New York, going to Bush.
It's Nov. 2, five days before the national election, but at Northfield Mount Hermon School, it's vote-tally night - and the excitement is mounting. As results roll in from 100 high schools across the United States - generally one private and one public school from each state - students are playing the roles of TV anchors, political analysts, interviewers, and scorekeepers. They're even simulating the Electoral College system in their count.
It's common these days to bemoan the apathy and cynicism of young adults - only 30 percent of 18- to 20-year-olds,
after all, voted in the last presidential election. But the students at this Northfield, Mass., school belie that image, reveling in electoral numbers, complicated election analysis, and relevant historical tidbits.
These political junkies are merely a particularly strong example of what can happen when civics moves beyond dry classroom recitations on government structure and becomes relevant. Indeed, hands-on learning about democracy when students are young will translate to informed and active voters, proponents say.
"I don't think young people are alienated," comments John Ripton, chair of the history department at the private Gill St. Bernard's School in Gladstone, N.J. "I don't think they're turned off. I just don't think they've been turned on."
More than a vote tally
The Northfield Mount Hermon VOTES (Voting Opportunities for Teenagers in Every State) project tries to do just that. "Most high schools across the country have mock elections," says government and history teacher Jim Shea, who launched VOTES during the 1988 Bush-Dukakis campaign. "But all you do is add up the votes.... The reality is, I get bored talking in theory about the electoral college. Teenagers don't want to hear about the Electoral College. They want to do the Electoral College, be it, see it in action."
Once they do, many students get excited about jumping into the political fray. About 125 kids volunteered for an active role this year. More than 75 percent of the school's 1,200 student body voted.
Throughout the fall, the campaign managers have been promoting their candidates through debates, information booths, and informal conversations. Shea has also sponsored a political film series, an essay contest, and speakers such as the high-profile political couple James Carville and Mary Matalin.
It can make the difference in getting motivated about the process. "I really have fun doing it," says senior Isaac Goldstein, one of the two news anchors. "I like convincing people." As he's learned about the issues, Isaac says, his views have shifted: "I'm a Nader guy now."
The students say young people's disengagement can be turned around through education. "We turned politics into ethical discussions," says senior Neale Mahoney, a Gore campaign manager, adding that initially he had a hard time getting other students interested. "The moment we did that, kids jumped all over it." Abortion rights, affirmative action, the environment, and gay rights were among the issues that resonated with his peers.
Election night excitement
By the evening of the actual vote count, the excitement in the student center is palpable. Huge cheering comes from the Al Gore supporters - easily the majority at this private preparatory school - whenever the TV anchors announce their struggling candidate has won a state. As they give the vote tallies, students analyze the results and interview "experts" on subjects ranging from environmental and minority issues to third-party politics and the role of the Middle East in this election.
Wayne Ting, one of the Gore campaign managers, confides that he's not too worried about the actual US election, despite the poor showing Gore is having here tonight. He says Ralph Nader is playing a much bigger role in the youth elections, forcing some left-leaning states to go to George W. Bush. (Indeed, in one surprising outcome, Nader takes Utah.)
Still, since the VOTES project has successfully called the last three presidential elections, many students are nervous or delighted, depending on their affiliation.
Other schools participating in VOTES 2000 also say the project has helped increase political awareness. Mr. Ripton had Gill St. Bernard's students play candidates throughout the fall. They organized staffs, nominated candidates, and participated in conventions, debates, and press conferences.
Naomi Ages, a Gill St. Bernard's senior whose role is Mr. Gore, says she's seen a huge shift in the attitude of her peers. "At the beginning, everyone thought it was another boring school assembly," she says. "Now everybody has at least one pin on their backpack. And they want to see if what happens in our school happens in the real world."
Still, most educators agree that the politically informed environment at Gill St. Bernard's and Northfield Mount Hermon is not the norm. Despite a growing number of programs to step up interest, young-voter turnout is not increasing.
You're not talking to me
One problem may be the simple fact that politicians aren't addressing issues they care about. "High school students like things that are directly relevant to their lives," says Franklin Foster, a social-studies teacher at Allen County-Scottsville High School in Scottsville, Ky. "They look at Bush and Gore and see them discussing the national debt, social security, prescription drugs for seniors. The reason they don't get as engaged as they should is they don't see these guys speaking to them."
Then there's civics education. Civics has traditionally been dead last on the Gallup poll of class popularity, says Chuck Tampio, a vice president for the Close Up Foundation, which brings kids to Washington for a hands-on look at government. The problem is in the teaching - which often sticks closely to the text and never reaches outside the classroom.
Meeting a congressional representative or volunteering for a campaign can spark a student who would otherwise be bored.
"High school curriculum typically has little or no influence on the behavior of students. Experiential ed does," Mr. Tampio says. "I believe the struggle for democracy is the most passionate, dramatic, eventful struggle you can think of. It has all the characteristics of high drama. The fact that we've found a way to teach it that distills all the drama out of it is amazing."
Tampio also criticizes the impact of standardized testing. "It discourages creative approaches in civics," he says. "If your kids have to learn all the presidents' names, you may not go and meet the governor."
The attitude of many adults can add to the drain on student interest. While it's popular to point the finger at disengaged students, many are acting in concert with disaffected adults.
"We're all guilty - the press, teachers themselves, and the movies [kids] see portray government and legislative people as crooks and thieves and bungling morons," says Michael Fischer, director of Project Citizen, part of the Center for Civics Education in Calabasas, Calif. "[Kids] say that must be the way it is."
Involving kids in local politics can be an entryway to civic engagement. Mr. Fischer points to kids in Montana who successfully pushed for a bike path that tunneled under a freeway. A group of special-ed eighth-graders in Arizona thought the DARE antidrug program in their school started too late. They developed a program that reached out to second-graders - and by the end of the project they were training teachers in the curriculum.
Both Project Citizen and Close Up make efforts to reach out to all students, not just the high achievers that political efforts often attract.
"There's sometimes an elitist approach to social action and participation," acknowledges Phillip VanFossen, director of the James F. Ackerman Center for Democratic Citizenship at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind. "What about Joey who's in the back of the class just scraping by? [Later in life] he's worried about just getting a job. But he may be the most important [to reach]."
Beyond the presidential campaign
It's also important to keep kids engaged in between presidential campaigns. "I have the same gripe about something like Black History Month," Fischer says. "That's wonderful, but why aren't we doing African-American history throughout the year?"
Still, many of the students involved in VOTES 2000 say it's changed their whole outlook on politics. "This will set a precedent in my mind for what I should do when I go to vote," says Luke Snelling, one of the Bush campaign managers at Northfield Mount Hermon.
Luke is smiling on this VOTES election night, and hoping that the school's record for picking winners holds true once again. The final mock-election results: Bush takes it, with 324 electoral votes to Gore's 209. Nader gets the five votes from Utah. Maybe it's not an accurate picture of what will happen in today's national election - but for these students, it's been an exciting campaign.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society