Before I left for my travels, I wanted to know the state of citizenship in our country. What are people saying? Does it seem like people are good citizens? Do they care if they are? Existing research suggests I might be in for a disappointing trip.
Civics Education Failing?
If tests are any indication, it seems like struggles with civic engagement begin at a young age in America. On the 2015 National Assessment of Educational Progress, only 23% of 8th graders were considered proficient in Civics. The average student scored a startling twenty-six points below the proficient level. But students do not only lack knowledge. They also lack an appreciation for citizenship’s and citizens’ importance. For me, the most alarming finding from NAEP was that fewer than one-in-five students could “explain how citizen participation affects democracy.”
It’d be one thing if only our youngest citizens lacked knowledge and confidence. But I found that these problems continue and maybe even worsen as people age. Researchers Robert Stefan Foa and Yascha Mounk recently showed that almost a third of American millennials do not believe that living in a democracy is “essential.” 24% even think democracies are bad or very bad. Sadly, people vote at rates that suggest they really do feel this way. In 2017, the Pew Research Center found that the United States ranks 28th out of 35 OECD member countries in voter turnout and that only 64.1% of eligible Americans are registered to vote.
It didn’t surprise me, then, that a Google research team showed that almost 50% of Americans could be described as “Interested Bystanders.” We, as Americans, tend to be people who are “paying attention to issues around them, but actively not voicing their opinions or taking action on those issues.” People want to be involved, but they often don’t know how. Likewise, it seems like people prefer local civics – because they feel like they can make a difference – but still don’t vote in local elections.
My Take on Citizenship Today
American citizenship appears to be in a difficult place. People aren’t voting. They don’t trust the federal government. And maybe most importantly, they don’t feel like they matter.
But the point of this trip is to go beyond the data, beyond the common narrative. I want to know what people think when they talk to someone on the street about these issues, and I want to know if they do care, but just don’t know how to show that they care. Citizenship is more than a number, or casting a ballot. I think it is about stories and experiences. I know it’s about how people live their lives as Americans and members of their communities. Hopefully my project will offer more detail on whether citizenship really is so dire.
Want to learn more on the state of Civic Health? Visit these sites!
Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools
Pew Research Center