As Benjamin Franklin walked out of the Constitutional Convention in 1787, he was approached by a woman who asked “Doctor, what have we got? A republic or a monarchy?” to which he responded, “A republic, if you can keep it.”
Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor shared this anecdote on Nov. 15, at The Bushnell in Hartford, where I had the privilege of listening to her speak.
Much of what Justice Sotomayor emphasized in her discussion was about the importance of civic engagement and an educated electorate; perhaps there is no more important time than now for us as a country to explore this sentiment.
For years it has been understood that youth voters, ages 18-29, show up to vote at significantly lower rates than older generations. In the most recent midterm elections, turnout for this age group was 27%, which is actually an unusually high number.
Justice Sotomayor elaborated on her opinions on civic engagement; she shared that, after Sandra Day O’Connor retired from the Supreme Court, she turned her focus to increasing civic education for youth in America, founding the non-profit organization, iCivics. In her research, O’Connor highlighted an inverse relationship between the decline in civic education and the rise in political partisanship.
Now more than ever, our media is saturated with misinformation and accusations that reflect our highly polarized political climate; coinciding with this are calls from both sides of the aisle for bipartisanship, each party blaming the other for the division.
The truth, however, is that neither party is solely responsible for our polarization; in fact, if we as a country truly want to mitigate this issue, we must explore its root cause. When people aren’t taught about how the world around them works, it’s natural to latch on to the first voice they hear.
This is why it is critical to teach media literacy and how to spot misinformation as a component of civic education. The news was designed to deliver the facts and allow people to form their own opinions, but now it seemingly does the opposite and forces people to decipher what is fact, as media is no longer delivered by a handful of mainstream channels, but rather it is disseminated via social media and partisan websites. Arming the next generation with the tools they need to identify misinformation is the first step to mending our fractured society.
Teaching the powers of the government and the role that we can play in it is also a critical component of civic education.
People vote when they understand how important it is to protect their interests, and unfortunately, this is oftentimes very reactionary; for example, high turnout in the 2022 midterms is largely attributed to the recent Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision. It is vital that people understand the role they can play in preventing these consequential decisions they so often turn out to vote in reaction to.
At KO, there must be an improved push to integrate civic education into classes. In middle school, we opened every history class with 10 minutes of discussion about current events – an opportunity for us as students to become more engaged members of our community. This, at the very least, should be the standard in every history class.
Since 1988, KO has also held a mock election every four years where students were able to vote for their preferred presidential candidate. This tradition was not continued into 2020, primarily as a result of COVID-19 regulations. It is vital that KO continues to implement mock elections. Today, civics is conflated with partisan politics, and many schools have shied away from touching topics of governance; with this, all opportunity for healthy discourse is lost.
Like Ben Franklin remarked, our government was built on the understanding that it would only exist so long as the electorate allows it to. Our government is meant to be representative of the people, so it is integral that the people make their voices heard on Election Day, and this begins with education in schools.