Learning to vote

“...we have taken democracy for granted...it has to be enacted anew in every generation, in every year and day, in the living relations of person to person in all social forms and institutions.” -- John Dewey

In this past election, estimates show 44% of eligible voters did not vote. Recent presidents, therefore, have been elected by approximately one quarter of eligible voters. This low participation undermines our democratic institutions. Sadly, our country has seemed to accept this low turnout as the norm. Although the problem is perplexing, it shouldn't deter us from exploring the reasons why so many people don't vote. For educators, especially, this issue should be at the top of the list of priorities for what should be addressed in schools and in classrooms.

There are many reasons why people don't vote, but one key reason appears on every list: a general feeling that one's vote doesn't matter or that it will not make a difference. Could it be that our schools are inadvertently teaching students to be apathetic and cynical? Are students getting the impression from their experience in school that the status quo is unchangeable?

One of the saddest experiences I had as an educator was when I heard a panel of high-school students talk about the bullying and mistreatment that they either experienced or witnessed in their school.  When their presentation was over, someone asked them if they thought that their school could change so that such acts did not occur. Every student concurred that such change was not possible; that schools were the way they were and probably would always be that way. They also admitted that they were never asked for their ideas or input for how to solve this problem. Add this anecdotal evidence to the research finding that empathy decreases in students the longer they are in school, and it is hard to avoid the conclusion that public education in its current state could be teaching students not to bother to vote. 

Unfortunately the structure and function of school has drifted far from what Dewey envisioned over a hundred years ago. In fact, the connection between education and democracy is no longer visible not only to the public but sadly to the people who live and work in the schools: the students and teachers.

The answer to changing this situation, however, is not simply to re-introduce or emphasize civics in the curriculum. Although students need to know how government functions and the responsibilities of citizenship, knowledge alone is not sufficient to get people to vote when they reach the age of eighteen and beyond. Teaching students about democracy without having them experience it is tantamount to expecting young people to play a sport by only letting them read about it and never letting them play it. What students need is the opportunity to experience what it is like to be a citizen in a democracy while in school on a daily basis.

Many educators would like to be "idealistic" but express concern that time devoted to building community and promoting citizenship detracts from the primary goal of helping students learn the curriculum and develop the skills needed success in school and life. There are however two findings from positive psychology that should allay those concerns:

  • People who feel supported and socially connected work harder and learn more;
  • Having a meaningful/aspirational purpose especially toward helping others increases motivation and learning.

Having young people together in one place at the same time supported by caring and competent adults should provide the right conditions for learning how to get along with others while solving common problems. The classroom should be the place where students discover the responsibilities and benefits of being a community guided by commonly shared beliefs and values. In this scenario, academic achievement would not be sacrificed, it would increase.

I believe that our students are waiting for adults to invite them to be citizens and to care for the common good. I have never met a student who refused to help me when I sincerely asked for it. Although, it might take some unlearning for students who have been always told what to do to suddenly respond positively to the invitation, the time invested in changing the power dynamics between teacher and students can have significant and lasting benefits, as this example demonstrated to me:

Towards the end of the school year, a new teacher came to me with a problem. He had not managed his time well and felt that he would have a difficult time teaching the science unit required by the curriculum. He didn't know what to do and was afraid of the consequences short changing any other part of the school day including the recess. I didn't know what to tell him, but suggested that he level with his students about his problem and ask them for their help and their ideas.He did so and was surprised when they unanimously voted on reducing some of their recess and snack time in order to create time for the science unit. Later on he relayed to me how well they learned the unit.

If students spend 13 years in a school community learning how to collectively make a positive difference in their school, they would welcome the responsibility of citizenship and would do more than just vote on Election Day: They would care about and take action in making their country a better place for everyone. 

Jim Dillon has been an educator for over 40 years, including 20 years as a school administrator. He is an educational consultant for Measurement Incorporated, who sponsor the Center for Leadership and Bullying Prevention. He is the author of Peaceful School Bus (Hazelden). No Place for Bullying (Corwin, 2012) and Reframing Bullying Prevention to Build Stronger School Communities (Corwin) and the picture book, Okay Kevin (Jessica Kingsley Publishing).

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