LETTER: For better voting, require civic education

October 13, 2016

Sheila Suess Kennedy’s column on voter behavior was too quick to discount the impact that civic education can have on the electoral process [Too many Americans don’t vote ‘correctly,’ Oct. 10]. The claim that civic education is “important but insufficient” minimizes the crisis in civic and historical education across K–12 and especially higher education.

To be sure, human nature and psychology contribute to the negative civic discourse among voters and candidates alike, but their influence does not exonerate colleges and universities for the woeful job they are currently doing in preparing students to participate in the civic and political process. It’s possible—and all too common—for students to graduate from college without receiving a modicum of civic education. The “2016–17 What Will They Learn?” report from the American Council of Trustees and Alumni reviewed 30 four-year colleges in Indiana and found that not a single one requires a foundational course on U.S. history or government of their students. And countless surveys document that graduates know shockingly little about civics.

Surely we can do a better job of preparing students to be engaged, informed citizens. Requiring America’s students to learn about America’s political institutions and constitution, grapple with difficult ideas, and engage responsibly with dissenting opinions would go a long way toward helping them avoid the insular thinking and confirmation bias that Professor Kennedy describes. Liberal arts graduates would be better equipped to step out of their personalized echo chambers and objectively assess policy positions. Exposing citizens to rigorous debate as students would also prepare them to participate civilly in political discourse. This might not be a panacea for the problem of irrational voting, but it would be a substantial step forward.


Michael Poliakoff, president
American Council of Trustees and Alumni

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