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Country needs youth to learn democracy

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POSTED: February 23, 2008 5:01 a.m.
If, by chance, you have visited a presidential campaign headquarters, you might have noticed one of the more striking aspects of the various campaigns - how young their foot-soldiers are. You see them in the background in many campaigns.
Young people - college students, those not long out of college, even some high-school students - play a central role in the behind-the-scenes work of a presidential campaign because, apart from the candidates themselves, only the young have the energy for the exhausting hours.
I can't help contrast this picture with what I've often seen at some local political event - mostly older people. The fact is, at the local and state levels, the people who make the political system work are getting older.
The parties' precinct committee leaders, the poll workers, the election judges, the convention delegates, those who fill the chairs at political functions - in short, the people who oil the machinery of a representative democracy - are for the most part middle-aged or beyond.
Our system depends for its vitality on a stream of young people getting involved in it, and not just in presidential election years. It's not simply the mechanics of politics that benefits from energy, new blood and fresh perspectives, it's democracy itself.
Our civic life cannot be whole if the ideas and perspectives of students and young adults are missing from political campaigns, or from grassroots efforts to change a policy or get a new traffic light.
Just as important, young people who don't take part in politics are missing a vital education in the complexities of their communities and in how to develop the skills that a vibrant democracy demands from its citizens.
As a society we're not especially good at encouraging young people to become involved in political life. Anne Colby, a senior scholar at the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching who has studied the political engagement of students at colleges and universities around the country, found they are much more likely to be involved in community service than in politics.
This may be, she argues, because that's what they know. In high school and college, she notes, students "are offered a great wealth of opportunities to do community service but they perceive very few opportunities and little encouragement to become politically involved."
It is good that students in high school and beyond are being shown how to contribute to their communities. And I certainly can understand why teachers might be reluctant to encourage students to become involved in the potentially controversial work of backing a political candidate or cause.
Yet if we define "contribute to the community" narrowly, leaving out politics, then we deprive our students of exposure to the issues and mechanisms that drive the nation's political life.
Moreover, as elementary and middle schools de-emphasize social studies in their efforts to meet federal and state testing requirements in math, reading and writing, you have to wonder how students will get the education in democracy that buttresses their ability to participate as adults in our democracy. As former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor and former Colorado Gov. Roy Romer put it in a 2006 op-ed column, "Most young people today simply do not have an adequate understanding of how our government and political system work, and they are thus not well prepared to participate as citizens."
There are efforts to counter this state of affairs. As part of our work at the Center on Congress, we partner with the Center for Civic Education and the National Conference of State Legislatures to promote civics instruction from kindergarten through college. O'Connor is spearheading a program to teach middle-schoolers about the judiciary and government in general. Former Congressman Abner Mikva has created a program giving students in the Chicago Public Schools a chance to volunteer for political campaigns, work as election judges, learn how to advocate for policy change, and develop leadership skills.
As creative and vital as these and other projects may be, the vacuum they're trying to address is enormous. What we need is a cultural change in our schools and communities that sees an adequate civic education as important as math and reading, and that encourages students to participate in the political system. There is no better way of ensuring that our democracy remains healthy from one generation to the next.

Hamilton is director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.
 

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