July 16, 2008

An overview of young people's growing political involvement is followed by a student questionnaire that gauges how informed students are, suggestions for student inquiry, and a listing of online resources.

The primary vote and polls demonstrate a greatly heightened interest among young voters in the coming presidential election—a worthwhile subject for classroom inquiry. The first student reading below provides an overview of the growing political involvement of people aged 17-29 as well as information on young people's participation in community service and in community action. The second reading includes a student questionnaire that was informed by Rick Shenkman's "How Ignorant Are We? The Voters Choose, but on the Basis of What?" at, (7/1/08).

Suggestions for student inquiry and citizenship projects follow, with a listing of online resources. Teachers may also be interested in "Young Voters: A Force in Politics," which was posted in the high school section of TeachableMoment just after the 2006 congressional election.


Student Reading 1:

Young voter interest in the election and community service

Interested in the coming election? If so, do you identify yourself as a Republican? A Democrat? A Libertarian? A Green? An Independent? Leaning toward one or the other? Something else? The Pew Center for People and the Press and CIRCLE can tell you a good deal about your generation and its political interests.

Pew Center polls in recent years show a sharp upswing in young voter interest both in voting and in voting for the Democratic Party. In 2004, 51% of young voters said they were either Democrats or leaning toward that party, 40% that they were either Republicans or leaning toward that party. Today the figures are, respectively, 58% and 33%. In contrast, according to the Pew Center, "the previous generation of young people who grew up in the Reagan years-Generation X—fueled the Republican surge of the mid-1990s."

Today's young voters are often called Generation Y or Millennials. Pew divides the age groups into the following categories: 17-29, 30-44, 45-59, and 60+. Though 17-year-olds cannot vote in a general election, a number of states allow them to vote in primaries if they will be 18 at the time of such an election.

The youngest voters gave the 2004 Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry his "highest level of support." They were the voters "most supportive" of Democratic congressional candidates in 2006. (

By the close of the 2008 primary elections, more than 6.5 million young people had participated, nearly doubling the 9% who voted in 2000 to 17%, according to the nonpartisan Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, or CIRCLE ( This is the first time the youth vote has risen in three consecutive elections since 1971 when the age for voting was lowered to 18.

CIRCLE reported that Senator Barack Obama was the choice of 60% of young Democratic primary voters and a majority in 32 of 40 states. Rohan Wagle, 18, a freshman at the University of California, Berkeley, said of Obama that he's "the most inspiring leader I've seen" and can bring change to Washington "because he doesn't have favors to repay to special interests because he doesn't take money from them."

Senator John McCain was the choice of 34% of young Republicans. Josh Curtis, 18, supports McCain because of his position on Iraq and said, "I think it's important that America stick it out until the end, when Iraqis have enough security to really establish their political system. I think that if we left now, it could be chaos or even genocide." (Katherine Mieszkowski, "Young Voters Are Stoked,", 2/2/08)

Young voters will have several other candidates to choose from. Bob Barr, the Libertarian candidate and former Republican congressman, said on the Colbert Report, "A lot of people, particularly young people, are completely fed up with the system. They've seen the corruption of the system that has given us bigger government no matter which party is in charge. They see the future as fairly bleak under the current system, and they're ready to vote Libertarian for the first time." (6/4/08)

In announcing his candidacy as an independent, Ralph Nader said that Washington D.C. is "corporate-occupied territory, every department, every agency controlled by the overwhelming presence of corporate lobbyists, corporate executives in high government positions, turning the government against its own people, [so] one feels an obligation" to run for President. (, 2/24/08)

Former U.S. Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney was chosen as the Green Party's presidential candidate. McKinney has campaigned in on the slogan "Power To The People," which calls for the immediate withdrawal of American forces from Iraq and Afghanistan, single-payer universal health care, the creation of a Department of Peace, and reparations for African-Americans.

In a Pew Center survey, young voters said the economy was their number-one issue (46%). Other top issues were the Iraq war (31%) and healthcare (20%). All age groups view these three issues as the most important issues—and in the same order. (Pew, 2/11/08) A CBS-MTV poll showed that young voters are also very concerned about college costs and the 18% teen unemployment rate. (, 5/5/08)

Two years ago Pew reported: "As has long been true, young people don't match their elders in voter turnout or many other traditional forms of political engagement. But the gap between younger and older voters narrowed in 2004, and there are clear signs that youth are increasingly finding other ways to be involved in public life." That Pew survey found that 4 of every 10 young people in the 18-29 age group said they had done some kind of volunteer work in the past year, and 22% said they regularly volunteer for community activities. (5/30/06)

In the recent CBS-MTV poll, one-quarter of voters under 30 said they had "worked on a campaign, joined a political club or attended a political rally or march." And CIRCLE found that 19% of young people say they have worked "informally with some group to solve a problem in the community" where they live, a percentage matching that of older people. (6/08)

Some universities are putting more emphasis on encouraging public service. A New York Times article headlined "Big Paycheck or Service? Students Are Put to Test" reported that Professor Howard Gardner of Harvard has begun leading "reflection" seminars at three universities to urge undergraduates "to think more deeply about the connection between their educations and their aspirations." He wants to encourage more students "to consider public service and other careers beyond the consulting and financial jobs that he says are almost the automatic next step for so many graduates of top colleges. 'Is this what a Harvard education is for?'" asked Professor Gardner. "'Are Ivy League schools simply becoming selecting mechanisms for Wall Street?'"

At Harvard, Amherst, Tufts, the University of Pennsylvania, and other colleges "officials are questioning with new vigor whether too many top students...are being lured by high-paying corporate jobs, and whether colleges should do more to encourage students to consider other careers, especially public service." (6/23/08)

For discussion

1. What questions do students have about the reading? How might they be answered?

2. How would you explain the increasing numbers of young people who vote?

3. How would you explain why those numbers still do not match those of older people?

4. In this election, young voters seem to favor the presidential candidacy of Barack Obama by a considerable margin. How would you explain this?

5. Do you also rate the top three issues as the economy, the Iraq war and healthcare? If so, why? If not, why not? What issues, if any, do you see as at least equal in importance to these three?

6. Why do you suppose that top universities want more students to consider public service careers?
7. Have you been active in your community on some issue? What? Why? Are you considering a career in public service? What? Why?


Student Reading 2:

Voter ignorance and a questionnaire

The turnout of young voters in the primaries suggests that even more will go to the polls in this presidential election than the 47% who voted in 2004. But how well informed will the average new voter be on civics and current issues? Probably not very. Surveys have repeatedly demonstrated the ignorance of the American people, in general—and of young people in particular.

In his essay "How Ignorant Are We? The Voters Choose...but on the Basis of What?" Rick Shenkman, an investigative reporter and history professor at George Mason University presents the evidence. (, 7/1/08) "By many measures," he writes, young people today "know less than young people knew 40 years ago. Only 20% read a daily newspaper, and more than half of those eligible don't vote."

A report by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute this year gave no reason for optimism. It found that "on average 14,000 randomly selected college students at 50 schools around the country scored under 55 (out of 100) in a test that measured their knowledge of basic civics."

How well-informed are you on basic civics and current issues? You might get a sense by answering the following questions.

Five elementary civics questions + one question about "The Simpsons"

1. What are the five freedoms guaranteed to Americans in the First Amendment to
the Constitution?

2. What are the three branches of the U.S. government?

3. Which branch of government has the authority to declare war?

4. If the President vetoes a bill passed by Congress, is there any way for that bill to become law? If so, how?

5. Who are your state's two senators?

6. Who are the five members of the Simpson family?

FYI: According to the McCormick Tribune Freedom Museum, about 1 in 4 Americans can name more than one of the five freedoms. One in 1,000 can name all five freedoms. But more than half can name at least two of the five members of the Simpson family, and more than one in five can name all of them. (Shenkman)

In surveys young voters, like their elders, have named the economy, the Iraq war and healthcare as the issues of most concern to them. Continue the questionnaire by responding to questions about those issues in one sentence each.

Four basic questions on major presidential election issues

7. What is one reason for the downturn in the U.S. economy?

8. What was one reason the president gave for the American invasion of Iraq in
March 2003?

9. What is one reason why American troops are still in Iraq more than five years later?

10. What is one reason why tens of millions of Americans do not have health insurance?

Albert Einstein once said that even the most perfectly planned democratic institutions are no better than the people who use them.

Thomas Jefferson said: "If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be."

Questionnaire results: Discuss answers to the ten questions. Have students grade their own papers.

For discussion

1. How would you explain why many more Americans know who the five members of the Simpson family are than what five American freedoms are named in the Constitution? How do you explain your own answers to these two questions?

2. On what matters do students seem well-informed? Ill-informed? Why?

3. What does information have to do with the "perfectly planned democratic institutions" Einstein mentioned? What else do you think are requirements if democratic institutions are to function well?

4. Why do you think Jefferson believed that ignorance and freedom "in a state of civilization" is impossible? Do you agree with him? Why or why not?

5. What are your sources of information about the news of your community? Your country? Your world?


Organizations and websites for inquiry and citizenship

The heightened interest of young people in voting and the political process has helped to generate a number of websites that focus on the political 3 R's-registration, resources, research-and a number of other matters, as the list below shows.

Student inquiry and citizenship activities might include the following:

1. Reporting to the class on what one of the websites has to offer young people interested in the presidential campaign.

2. Investigating political groups in the community: party offices and organizations and adult community action groups.

3. Volunteering to work for one of these organizations.

4. Establishing a school center from which to help students eligible to vote with information about registration and the candidates.

5. Preparing non-partisan FAQ sheets for students about economic issues, the Iraq war, healthcare, and any other issues that concern them.

For additional suggestions, see "Teaching Social Responsibility."

Online resources for young voters and other interested students

CIRCLE (The Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement) ( Based at the University of Maryland's School of Public Policy, CIRCLE offers research findings, fact sheets, and information on community service and how young voters can use online tools to connect with each other. Its focus is the civic and political involvement of Americans ages 15-25.

Rock The Vote ( "Rock the Vote's mission is to engage and build the political power of young people in order for people to achieve progressive change in our country." The organization sponsors its own channel on You Tube and has had the support of such celebrities a Justin Timberlake, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Madonna.

Redeem The Vote ( This group provides political information with a special focus on an Evangelical Christian perspective. The Washington Post called it "the evangelical answer to MTV's Rock The Vote campaign." It concentrates on getting young voters registered.

Project Vote Smart ( Its mission is to provide "factual, non-biased political information" on candidate backgrounds, biographies and statements. The site is for voters of all ages but includes a special section aimed at young voters.

Vote Gopher (, no longer active): "We Dig, You Decide" is the slogan for its mission—to detail the candidates' positions on major issues. The site is mostly managed by Harvard undergraduates and emphasizes that its writers have taken a "non-partisan oath."

Smackdown Your Vote ( This organization partners with a number of other groups, including the University of Virginia's youth leadership project, to research voting trends and grassroots organizations.

Scoops '08 ( The "first-ever daily national student newspaper," Scoops '08 features the work of hundreds of high school and college journalists on political issues. It says it is non-partisan, gets advice from Newsweek and New York Times writers and includes information for potential newcomers.

18 in '08 ( Featured on this site are information about a documentary film, mobilizing the youth vote, interviews and discussions of "what's at stake" in the coming election.

The missions of the following three sites are to organize and mobilize young voter in their constituency to be active in the presidential campaign:

Black Youth Vote (
Young Republicans (
21st Century Democrats (



This lesson was written for TeachableMoment.Org, a project of Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility. We welcome your comments. Please email them to: