Putting the Civic Cart Before the Horse

Should college students be political activists?

A new paper published by the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at Tufts University says yes. This view has been implicitly endorsed by Wake Forest University, which selected the study as the freshman reading assignment for the past summer.

The study, “Millennials Talk Politics: A Study of College Student Political Engagement,” is a refreshing change from the “victimization” trend of much summer reading. However, it encourages civic participation among American college students while ignoring the more important problem, their lack of civic education.

“Millennial” students are already volunteering in record numbers—either to pad their resumes or from a sense of compassion (which the “Gen-X” generation, now mostly over 30 years old, inexplicably lacked). By the early 2000s, volunteering had become commonplace. Students willingly spend free time at the soup kitchen or SPCA. But according to “Millennials Talk Politics,” political activism has not followed suit.

And for good reason, in my opinion. My experience as a political science instructor taught me that most college students aren’t ready to tackle political issues seriously. “Millennials Talk Politics” even acknowledges this: “Today’s college students…don’t feel adequately informed or able” to make political decisions. Many students come to campus with only a rudimentary understanding of our political system, and no idea how everyday political decisions affect them personally.

A recent study issued by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ISI) revealed that the average college freshman knows astoundingly little about America’s history, government, international relations, and the market economy. Most students earned an “F” on the ISI’s American civic literacy exam. According to ISI, “Seniors do not know America’s founding documents. Only 45.9% know that the line ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal’ comes from the Declaration of Independence.”

In teaching introductory American Politics, I learned that most students get their nightly news—and any understanding of politics—from late-night parodists Jon Stewart or Stephen Colbert. It’s no wonder that they’re more likely to know about Paris Hilton’s energy plan than a presidential candidate’s.

Do we want these students to become politically active? Certainly not yet. They wouldn’t have anything on which to base their arguments, their ideologies, or their votes. Yet, “Millennials Talk Politics” recommends, “All students need to have opportunities for civic and political participation.”

Before colleges encourage students to participate, they should first teach them to understand. Current proposals to foster student engagement—via community service, political activism or service learning—leave little room for education. “Millennials Talk Politics” misses the point: Students don’t lack opportunities to participate. (The presidential campaigns are champing at the bit for student involvement.) Students simply lack the knowledge to participate meaningfully.

Without knowledge of our political system, how can students even evaluate the organizations for which they might volunteer? Or the candidates for whom they might campaign?

Universities can start by going back to basics. Instead of allowing students to choose between film studies, pop-culture trivia, or narrowly specialized topics, general education requirements should include, for a start: American history, American government, and micro- and macro-economics. A class on personal finance would probably also be a good idea; maybe another on foreign policy.

Many schools claim to be preparing students to be “global citizens.” They should first make sure that today’s students know how to be American citizens.

College students are America’s future leaders. In time, they will take part in political activism and lead the governments, businesses and non-profit institutions of tomorrow. While programs like Wake Forest’s are well intentioned, they miss the mark. Instead of heedlessly encouraging participation, colleges should be deepening student understanding of our nation’s history and institutions. Participation will certainly follow.

Jenna Ashley Robinson is campus outreach coordinator for the John W. Pope Center for Higher Education Policy.