NOTE: The following article by Senator Everett M. Dirksen
appeared in The Instructor (March 1967)
A study by the American Heritage Foundation revealed that the population group of ages 21 to 29 is the least politically alert in the nation. We have come to regard an exercise of voting franchise by 65 percent of those eligible as a good turnout. Relatively few Americans utilize our representative system by petitioning their Congressmen for redress of grievances.
Political apathy is dangerous in that, while it causes no concrete destruction, it also offers no positive contribution. Couple apathy with the often negative and destructive activities of political dissidents, and we have a cause for concern. When there are in evidence no positive demonstrations to counter draft protesters, flag burnings, looting, and the destruction of private property, we must ask why. Where are the strong and enthusiastic youth we would expect to rally to the defense of their nation and its heritage?
The answer, I believe, lies in apathy. The young, strong voices that we need so much to hear at the present time lie dormant. Youth is indifferent. Our young people are not solely to blame for their lack of commitment and involvement. They are merely imitating the example that most Americans have set for them. "We learn anything," wrote William Heard Kilpatrick, "in the degree that we live it, in the degree that we count it important to us, in the degree that we accept it in our hearts for use in life."
We must teach citizenship
Our challenge and responsibility are clear. If we would desire good citizenship, love of country, respect for heritage among our young, then we must teach them. And we must do so actively, consistently, and most of all early. It is essential that we provide children with an environment conducive to the learning about, practicing of, and valuing of good citizenship and responsible involvement in national life.
Children should be surrounded with reminders of our heritage as a nation and with the symbols of our loyalty. They will learn patriotic reverence best if they see it practiced by adults. They will learn how to be good citizens if they are encouraged and shown how good citizens respond to given situations, if they are provided opportunities to use this knowledge.
The classroom is one very good place, and for some children the only place, where an environment conducive to the learning and practice of the basis for good citizenship can be provided. Traditionally the social studies class has functioned as the primary area for the demonstration and practice of good citizenship and democratic principles.
Research is under way at several centers at the present time to improve social studies education and the teaching of citizenship. Just recently, for example, Columbia University and Teachers College have formed a Center for Research and Education in American Liberties that will lead to a national program for improving the teaching of civil liberties, civil rights, and citizenship in elementary and secondary schools, colleges, and universities. In the Cleveland area some thirty schools are working together to develop materials for use in elementary schools. The program states that its objective is "to convey to children . . . a sense of responsibility in action necessary to safeguard and fulfill our national ideals for human freedom and dignity."
The responsibility lies with the teacher
Despite all this research and development of materials, the final obligation for formal teaching of good citizenship will continue to rest on the individual classroom teacher. He will find himself confronted with an extraordinary opportunity and responsibility for shaping desirable citizenship attitudes in his students. He must meet this challenge with his own personal example and teaching innovation.
For example, the teacher can illustrate the basic tenets of democracy and fair play by allowing them to function in classroom procedures. Whenever possible, he might give the children a choice of several alternative assignments which they would then be allowed to vote on. The teacher should be prepared to allow the majority opinion to carry and to be implemented. Thus he illustrates his own respect for the basic idea that everyone abides by the voice of the majority, and he gives the children a chance to practice democratic procedure in their own small sphere.
One of the first exercises in which children participate in American schools is the Pledge of Allegiance to the Flag. Children are apt memorizers. They learn nursery rhymes, commercials for television, and poems or sayings, if they are so directed. It is therefore reasonable that if we want to the Pledge of Allegiance to become more to our children than a rote drill, we must begin by explaining to them what we wish them to understand.
Even with young children teacher may discuss and point out the place of oaths in our society - marriage vows of their parents, oaths taken when testifying in trials, and the oath of the President. These are all events that even young children generally have acquaintance with, and discussion will provide clarification, new interest, and learning for them.
From class discussion children will see and experience disagreement and compromise, the art of reasoning out differences to an acceptable solution, which must be the basis for successful contact of all civilized men. In addition, class discussion encourages the practice of free speech and teachers respect for the opinion of others and their right to speak.
The classroom is an excellent place for the child to learn responsibility. He may be delegated to do a certain task as a result of election procedures by his class. Class elections for almost any purpose give children a chance to participate in the most fundamental act of the democratic process. Here they may be taught by experience to cherish their voices in group decisions, and to weigh carefully any responsibility given them as a result of such group action. A principle so imbued will not likely foster an apathetic voter.
There are myriads [sic] of ready examples to be drawn from everyday life and brought into the classroom to help illustrate and inculcate the values of good citizenship in our children. Certainly the efforts of the schools to teach loyalty, honesty, fair play, and respect for law, importance of franchise, and all the other facets of good citizenship need support from home and community. But because most young children do not have a full vote in family or community, to the classroom is given the unique opportunity and challenge of providing a kind of community in miniature in which the child will have full voice. There he may learn and practice for the time when he will have a full voice and full responsibility as a citizen for the future of our nation.