Preparing Young People for Their Future

John Wildermuth
Journalist and Political Commentator

The young people of today are going to be the leaders of tomorrow and that should raise a collective “Uh oh” across the nation, a Stanford professor believes.

In a recent report on civic education – think high school civics classes and the like – William Damon and his associates are convinced that young people aren’t being readied for the public roles they inevitably are going to take.

Education “is not preparing students for effective participation in civic life,” he said in a consensus report out of a conference held earlier this year at Stanford. “Few young people are sufficiently motivated to become engaged in civic and political activity.”

It would be nice to be able to blame the schools for the growing disconnect the young millennials are showing with the political system and the people who run it, especially since that would mean fixing the schools would fix the problem. But the concerns run way beyond the classroom.

As anyone who grew up in the ‘60s knows, there’s nothing particularly unusual about young people being alienated from the status quo, as represented by their parents and the rest of the older generations.

But today, when politics has become an unending blood sport and compromise a dirty word, that normal disillusionment too often takes on a feeling of “a plague on both your houses,” combined with a belief that nothing good can come out of Washington, Sacramento or any other political center.

A new poll out of Harvard’s Institute of Politics found that 52 percent of the 18- to 29-year-olds polled wanted to see every member of Congress recalled and replaced.

While throwing the rascals out and starting over is always an intriguing dream, it’s more entertainment than reality. The question, as always, is “Replace them with who?”

It wasn’t that many years ago that the greatness of America was the thought that anyone could grow up and become president. While that probably never has been true, young people watching the non-stop political attacks on President Obama and Bush and Clinton before him likely wonder why anyone would want to grow up and become president.

The popular culture doesn’t help much. The ability to use cable TV and the Internet to individually tailor the news to a person’s preferences – and prejudices — means that it’s easy to live a civic life where seldom is heard a discouraging word, something MSNBC and Fox News are all too willing to exploit.

At a time when much social discourse is limited to the 140 characters of Twitter or the micro video feeds of Vine (“six seconds of creativity”), attempts to provide a balanced, in-depth look at issues that are going to affect everyone for years to come can be dismissed with a casual “tldr” (Too long; didn’t read” for the uninitiated).

Entertainment shows like Jon Stewart’s “The Daily Show” or “The Colbert Report” rely on a “too cool for the room” vibe for their humor, too often suggesting that politics and the people involved in it are vaguely ridiculous and disconnected from what’s really important to young people and the country in general.

When “Obamacare” becomes a punch line, how can a real discussion take place?

The concerns aren’t always wrong, of course. Politicians generally don’t need much help to appear silly and out of touch, not to mention venial, self-serving and self-important.

Still, it’s the only government we have. Ignoring it won’t make the problems the country faces go away or improve the quality of people running the show.

There needs to be a recognition that politics and government are important, too important to be left to the few.

What Damon and his colleagues suggest in their report is that schools need to talk to students not only about the nuts and bolts of the political system, but also about a wider definition of patriotism.

Educators should discuss patriotism, the report says, “as a felt attachment to something larger than the self – to great ideas and to a community built around those ideas – that supports an individual’s capacity for civic commitment, sustained participation and willingness to sacrifice for the common good.”

Something, that is, that appeals to the best in all of us.

John Wildermuth is a longtime writer on California politics.

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