Shaping Young Citizens

Citizenship used to be taught in civics classes in middle and high school. The instruction began even earlier, with the Pledge of Allegiance in grammar school and the recitation of patriotic dates, words, and heroes. By the end of 12th grade, presumably, students knew their system of government was worth participating in.

The old assumptions no longer hold. Prime evidence of that: an abysmal voting rate among younger Americans. In the last presidential election, 1996, only 32 percent of eligible 18- to 24-year-olds voted. In the 1998 midterm election, turnout for this group sank to around 15 percent.

A number of colleges and universities are trying to step into this breach in citizenship among the young. Tufts University, just north of Boston, this year opened a new University College of Citizenship and Public Service (with a donation by Pierre Omidyar, Tufts graduate and founder of online auction house eBay, and his wife).

The purpose of the college is to help make citizenship part of the fabric of the university, as Tufts president John DiBiaggio put it. Participating students are prodded toward some original thinking about leadership and what it takes to bring about change in society.

Brown University, in Providence, R.I., is taking a somewhat different tack. It just started a three-year "initiative" to encourage students to discuss values, with an eye to developing stronger codes of personal and social responsibility. Those enrolled in the program, mainly freshmen so far, have to write one-page opinion pieces each week, which become the basis for small-group discussions. Topics range freely - personal goals, society's needs, spirituality, even love.

The idea of encouraging college students to think about their broader responsibilities as citizens has been around for a long time. Since 1985, a Rhode Island-based organization called Campus Compact embracing hundreds of colleges and universities, has encouraged students to engage in various kinds of public service. The difference now is a determination to move beyond the act of service to pondering the reasons for it and how to keep them vital.

Shouldn't higher education, in itself, foster citizenship and a grasp of how democracy ought to work? Ideally, yes. But at a time of wavering civic spirit, when most college-age Americans make becoming well off a top priority, some specific attention to citizenship is useful - in college and at every educational step toward it.

The ultimate test: many more 18-year-olds who can't be kept away from the polling place come November.

The test: better turnout among the young come this November.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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