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The Importance Of Teaching Democracy

By Alex Ray

When you go to the polls and vote this November, the best thing you could do for America is to bring your children or grandchildren with you. Explain to them what you are doing - and why stepping into that little closeted booth is important to your life and theirs as well.

It is the first step in establishing an important family tradition of civic responsibility. Studies have shown that children who go to the polls with their parents are more likely to vote when they become adults. The drop-off in younger voters (18-25) signals problems for future generations because our system of government is a participatory democracy. By not participating, we are leaving it to others to decide important components of our lives.

Going to the Polls

Politics affects everything we do: the air we breathe, the water we drink, the amount of taxes we pay, the quality of the roads upon which we drive and the kind of education our children and grandchildren receive, just to name a few.

Civic responsibility, of which voting is the most important, is a learned social behavior. The founding precept of our public education system was to preserve and promote a democratic society. Unfortunately, the teaching of civics in schools across the country has lost favor after the educational reforms of the 1960s. Today, the majority of states do not require students to take even one semester in American government. Is it any wonder why younger Americans don’t vote?

More teens can name the Three Stooges than the three branches of government. They know who founded Microsoft but not who fathered the Constitution. They think that Springfield is home to Bart Simpson, not Abraham Lincoln.

More teens can name the Three Stooges than the three branches of government.Our nation's young people are appallingly ignorant of American history, civics and the workings of government. In the last national assessment test in history, only 18 percent of fourth graders, 17 percent of eighth graders, and 11 percent of 12th graders demonstrated what is loosely termed "proficiency”. 59 percent of 4th graders do not know why Pilgrims and Puritans first voyaged to America; 68 percent of 4th graders can't name the first 13 colonies and 90 percent of 8th graders can't recount anything about the debates of the constitutional convention.

Students cannot be expected to develop a sense of civic responsibility if they don't understand the core institutions that preserve democracy. There are some schools that take democracy and voting seriously. They provide events through which children learn about our democratic process, such as mock elections with classmates representing the views of candidates. Many of these school elections reflect the same percentages of votes their parents cast. I have been in campaigns where candidates have briefed students representing them and provided materials for the school elections. That is how serious some of these “mock elections” are taken.

Learning the election process in schools and at home can only serve to bring about greater participation when these children and teenagers go out into the world.

Our students must learn first-hand about the power to influence changes in our government. We need only look back to the 60’s and 70’s to see how citizen activism changed our nation. The passage in Congress of the historic civil rights legislation in 1964 was a result of civic activism. Tens of thousands of people took to the streets to protest racial inequalities in our institutions. It was the largest demonstration of civic activism since our forefathers dumped tea in the Boston Harbor to protest the taxes levied by England on the colonists.

Our students must learn first-hand about the power to influence changes in our government.Don Laws, a political science professor emeritus at Southern Oregon University believes helping kids understand politics is important to the basic survival of democracy. “It may seem like a tall order to discuss national politics with future voters more concerned about cartoons and Little League,” Law wrote, “but parents should begin with preschool-age children and focus on issues they can relate to.” Law defines politics as ‘group decision-making’ and teaching young children how to work together and make important decisions within the family is a vital step in preparing them for democracy. A decision as basic as where the family takes their summer vacation is a good example of Professor Law’s theory.

The National Standards for Civic Education calls for civics instruction from grades K through 12 to create a citizenship of informed and civic-minded community members. We must remember that the responsibility of teaching civics, history and democracy to our children and grandchildren is not left exclusively to our education system. Parents need to be held accountable for such simple contributions as dinner table conversations.

Reading List
Read more about presidents, the electoral process, and political history with our Your Vote Counts! Reading List featuring books for all ages. Read More >

This year’s presidential election provides a wonderful opportunity. Sit down with your child or children one evening before November 2nd and tell them who you will be voting for and, more importantly, why. This will require some preparation on your part. Let them ask questions, even argue. Through this family exercise, they will begin to understand the importance of democracy. And take them to the polls with you on Election Day. Explain the process; ask if they have questions.

We have taken our democracy for granted; hence nearly half of our population misses the opportunity to vote. This presidential election finds us at a crossroads, one at which our values and our role as the planet’s sole superpower will be tested. There will probably come a day in the not to distant future when our children and grandchildren will look back at this election and ask us if we stood up to be counted. I believe they will loose respect for us if we don’t.

Alex Ray is a political and media consultant, a columnist for the Star Democrat in Easton, Maryland and a writer who published a historical perspective on some odd events in American history, Tales from the American Attic. He is the father of 8, grandfather of 19 and great-grandfather of 2.

Don't Miss
The following websites offer information on presidents, elections, and politics both past and present. These resources are designed specifically for kids and include articles, activities, resources, and news that will encourage their participation in this year's election.

Smithsonian Education: Mr. President, Profiles of Our Nation's Leaders

Did you know that Thomas Jefferson offered his own huge book collection as a replacement when British troops burned the Library of Congress? Or that John F. Kennedy was the youngest man ever elected president—and the youngest to die in office? Visit Mr. President to learn the facts about each of our nation’s presidents. It’s a great place for browsing, research, or homework help.

MSN Kidz Election Webquarters

MSN and Weekly Reader provide information, news, games and polls for kids in grades K-2, 3-4 and 5+. There are fun activities and lots of interesting stuff to learn about election 2004!

Scholastic Election 2004

Kids can participate in interactive learning activities like: "How to Run for President" where they learn about the steps to becoming President.

Kids Voting USA

It's unique, it's fun and it works! Kids Voting USA combines dynamic, hands-on civics activities with an authentic voting experience to get students involved and ready to be active citizens.

Project Vote Smart

Thousands of candidates and elected officials. Who works for you? Who is seeking your vote? Project Vote Smart, a citizen's organization, has developed a Voter's Self-Defense system to provide you with the necessary tools to self-govern effectively: abundant, accurate, unbiased and relevant information. As a national library of factual information, Project Vote Smart covers your candidates and elected officials in five basic categories: biographical information, issue positions, voting records, campaign finances and interest group ratings. What would you like to know?

Vote: The Machinery of Democracy

Presented by the Smithsonian National Museum of American History, this online accompaniment to their exhibit Vote: The Machinery of Democracy explores how ballots and voting systems have evolved over the years as a response to political, social, and technological change, transforming the ways in which Americans vote.

The American Presidency: A Glorious Burden

To tell the story of the American presidency, the National Museum of American History compiled, for the first time, objects that represent the lives and times of the country’s presidents. The website features each of the 42 presidents and objects associated with their time in office. Online activities include repainting the presidential seal and an interactive introduction to the roles the president plays.


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