I venture to say that if people were asked today what the greatest threat is to the United States, they would answer terrorism.

With no surprise to you, gentle readers, I have a different answer.

I would include the growing deficit, increasing poverty, the war in Iraq and all its unintended consequences, and the declining trust in America around the world. But among the top two or three threats, I would list declining civic engagement in America, especially among our young people.

The data is clear. In 1952, more than 70 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds believed government listened to them; by 2000, it had plummeted to about 40 percent. A 2002 survey showed that 25 percent of 15- to 25-year-olds were active in a group, compared to 33 percent for older citizens. Only 32.3 percent of the younger age group regularly voted, compared to 53.6 percent for those older than 25. Only 10 percent of the 15- to 25-year-olds contacted a politician, while 20 percent of those older than 25 did. While voter turnout among America’s youth was “up” in 2004 to 49 percent from 40 percent in 2000, it is estimated that this is likely the result of the more than $2 billion spent on a get-out-the-youth-vote efforts. It is unclear if the 2004 increase is a blip or part of a trend.

Why is this important?

All of America’s great political leaders, especially the founders such as Washington, Jefferson, Madison and Adams, underscored the critical importance of active citizenship. The success of the Republic, they all said in their own way, depended on an informed and engaged electorate.

In another vein, Alexis de Tocqueville, that insightful commentator on the American scene in the 19th century, identified a unique, distinguishing quality of American life. He was struck by the propensity of Americans to come together in “voluntary association” to work for the common good. He found this in marked distinction from the European way. We know that this has become a defining quality of the American character.

The recent, widely read “Bowling Alone” confirms an alarming departure from this tradition. One hopeful sign is that the current generation – “The Millennials” – do volunteer work in significantly larger numbers than do their elders.

There is a third reason this is important, and it is a relatively new phenomenon. Not only are today’s young people called upon to renew their active citizenship in this country, they are also called to function as global citizens in an ethical and engaged way.

In this increasingly flat and interdependent world, this relatively new dimension of global citizenship takes on urgent significance. And we have a long way to go. Eighty-three percent of American youth did not know where Afghanistan was, despite the fact we are waging a war there. Eighty percent of American citizens did not know that India was the largest democracy on the planet.

It is not entirely clear what global citizenship will require. We get some ideas from the CEO of UPS, the fourth-largest company in the world. He cites economic literacy, foreign language competence, technological savvy, sensitivity to and tolerance of different cultures, capacity to manage complex issues and a solid, global, ethical foundation. This is one of the major challenges of the 21st century to our young people, and I venture to say that there needs to be major changes in our educational system to prepare students for this new world.

So, how do we turn this alarming trend around? Happily, there are a number of organizations across the country and in Maine that are addressing this fundamental threat to our existence as a democratic republic. I am fortunate to be co-chairing one of the Maine efforts, and I am chairing a national study group convened by the National Association of State Boards of Education. There are some clear, promising first steps to reverse this dangerous trend of disengagement from the business of the Republic.

We must restore social studies and civics to a respected place in the K-12 curriculum. Ninety-one percent of respondents in one survey said that robust civic education programs can prepare young people for engaged citizenship. But it’s not civics course that us older folks remember. Today, they must be imaginative, creative and project-oriented.

All across the curriculum, classrooms need to engage students in thoughtful, civil discussions of current events. It can be the direct route to relevance so important to today’s students. Teachers should be encouraged and protected as they help their students learn to deal with controversial matters.

We must provide rich opportunities for community service. There should be a connected continuum from curriculum to community and back. Service-learning is a very promising pedagogy that connects service to the classroom.

Extracurricular activities are a good place to focus on engagement. Teams and clubs should be encouraged to “take on” community projects of interest, thereby making the school an integral part of community-building efforts.

Schools should be laboratories of democratic practice. Students should serve on all committees. Passivity in school affairs breeds passivity in the community. Schools cannot just talk about student engagement; they must walk the walk in the function of schools.

Simulation programs such as mock trials and National Model United Nations also encourage learning and skills that will serve the future.

Finally, the curriculum must be globalized. Understanding the critical languages of today (Chinese, Japanese, Arabic, etc.) and the multiple cultures that are but a click away on the computer is critical. And all of this must be accomplished in an ethical framework that respects and values difference.

This is a huge challenge. The stakes are high – much higher than the “War on Terror.”

The quality of American democracy at home and America’s place in the larger world hang in the balance.

Jim Carignan is a retired educator who lives in Harpswell and is chairman of the state Board of Education. His e-mail address is [email protected]


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