Last week, while investigating a politician using public records from the Rhode Island Superior Court and State House for a course, I made a startling discovery: I quickly realized my basic high school education about American government had slipped away from me. As I spoke to administrators who asked me what type of court case I was looking for and whether the politician had been in the R.I. Senate or the U.S. Senate, I could barely answer their questions.
It was embarrassing to confront how little I know about the way government works — especially considering that I go to Brown, where so many students actively engage in political discussions on a regular basis. Rather than take advantage of the opportunity to learn more, I’ve let my lack of knowledge scare me away from political conversations for fear of sounding stupid or not having enough to bring to the table. Over time, the problem has only gotten worse, to the point that I can’t remember basic governmental facts.
I am not alone in this. Studies routinely show that Americans are not as knowledgeable about their own democracy as they should be. For example, a 2014 survey released by the Annenberg Public Policy Center at Penn showed that 35 percent of adult respondents were unable to name even one branch of the federal government, and only 36 percent could identify all three. Similarly, in a 2017 survey by the Brookings Institution, four out of 10 college students seemed to misunderstand the First Amendment. Overall, while Americans have completed more schooling now than they did 60 years ago, they’ve continued to remain just as ignorant about politics.
It’s unclear why this is the case, but for most students, it’s not fear driving this lack of knowledge — it’s disinterest. Given that individual votes do not count, people feel less inclined to make well-researched decisions and maintain a polished political repertoire. There’s also the concept of political distance: Many young people who don’t yet pay taxes feel disconnected from the government and, as a result, don’t feel compelled to learn exactly how it works.
This lack of knowledge doesn’t mean that people are voting less. In fact, our generation is more politically engaged than ever, based on the number of college students who voted in the last presidential election. As we see every day here at Brown, there are many students who have very developed understandings of our country’s political system. But the evidence increasingly suggests that our generation, while more involved in large-scale elections, is less well-informed about the nuances of the political process than our participation would suggest.
In response to this knowledge gap, schools should take action to improve civic literacy — especially at the university level. Most public high schools have government course requirements, but the majority of university students have no obligation to take courses to enhance civic knowledge, and as a result, only some put in the extra effort to do so. Keeping this lack of motivation in mind, institutions can do more to tackle the root of this ignorance.
At Brown, for example, there is an abundance of introductory courses in public policy and political science that impart a wealth of information about the government. But these courses often have lengthy reading assignments and can be tedious for students who are not fully engaged in the material, discouraging many students from even shopping them. To combat this, Brown and other institutions should work harder to incorporate civics into the curriculum of other, related courses in the social sciences and humanities, so that a broader audience can learn about the importance of government in various contexts. Perhaps universities could also offer workshops or trainings for first-years and others who could benefit from a basic introduction into the political world.
Another obstacle to engaging more deeply with our governmental processes is that many of us don’t understand what information and resources are out there. With fake or sensationalized news infiltrating our social media feeds and television screens, it’s hard for students to know what sources to trust and where they should look to broaden their understanding. Universities can step in to this gap by compiling these sources and databases so students find it easier to access the information they need — both for their academic work and their personal political decisions. It may seem like everyone at Brown is well-versed in political understanding, but I’m willing to bet I’m not the only one who feels out of their depth investigating and discussing politics.
As we face a looming governmental crisis, it’s more important than ever that the American public be politically literate so they can critically evaluate the unprecedented events of the last year. This change needs to start with young people in the classroom, as these students will be the ones to shape our country’s political landscape in the years ahead.
Samantha Savello ’18 can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please send responses to this opinion to email@example.com and other op-eds to firstname.lastname@example.org.