What Parkland Teaches Us About Youth

Let's think about how we can enhance civic education.

Posted Apr 03, 2018

If any good can come from the school shootings in Florida, it may be the wave of political energy sparked by the Stoneman Douglas students. They directly affected the Florida state legislature and stimulated students elsewhere to do the same in their states. More generally, their articulateness has caught the attention of media commentators who were previously focused on the self-centeredness and civic malaise of Millennials. On an even broader scale, the students’ actions have started a much needed national discussion about civic education and young people’s capacity as citizens. A New York Times op-ed even advanced the idea of voter eligibility of 16-year-olds (an idea we’ve been talking about for a decade) and a Sunday review in the Guardian specified what civic courses ought to feature. 

One lesson we should draw from the activism of the Stoneman Douglas students is that our young people want to be treated as citizens and are ready to take on the responsibilities of citizenship.

"Minnesota March for Our Lives" by Fibonacci Blue/CC-by-2.0
Source: "Minnesota March for Our Lives" by Fibonacci Blue/CC-by-2.0

Those of us who study youth and civic education do not want to waste this moment of opportunity. We are aware that in the past, when the public has a renewed interest in promoting civic lessons, implementation of these lessons was thwarted by ideological battles.  What should teachers teach? Who will monitor them? Are they too liberal? What should students be allowed to discuss? Nuclear arms? Abortion? Social security? Should students learn the structure of government, say, its three divisions? Should they memorize key elements of the Constitution? Should they focus on American history, the wars we fought and the heroes who led battles and forged treaties?

We did not make up these questions. Many of them were asked by actual commissions established early in the twentieth century when public schools were being democratized and absorbing immigrants as well as children who were removed from the workplace. What the majority of commissioners decided seems sensible for their time as well as the present. First, you learn to be a citizen by taking on the role. As one commissioner stated: You learn a foreign language, not be reading about it, but by speaking it with other people. Second, local government is the place to begin because the courts, the police, the sanitation workers are sustaining your community. And third, civic life in the form of organized citizen groups is all around you. If you want to learn citizenship, then learn by participating in these groups as they address homelessness, crime prevention, or environmental health in your neighborhood.

Of course, back at the start of the twentieth century, youth were viewed differently than they are today. They were not removed from ongoing life but were part of it—married in their late teens or early twenties, having children, buying homes, and embarking on professions they’d stay in for life.  We now stretch out the path to adulthood by imposing more and more schooling before mature roles can be taken on. In the process of slowing the course to maturity, we’ve forgotten—and should now remember--that youth are citizens with the capacity to contribute to society.

Throughout our history, young people have contributed to national welfare.  Unemployed Depression era youth suddenly became our military force in World War II.  Black youth from across the country fueled the civil rights movement in the 1950s and ‘60s. Fortunately, the students from Parkland, FL, have reminded us that the energy and passion of youth can be contagious. It would be a shame not to capitalize on this opportunity for renewing civic education and, in the process, our democracy.   

References

Hart, D., & Youniss, J.  (2017).  Renewing democracy in young America.  New York: Oxford University Press.