Report calls for more emphasis on civic duty

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November 12, 2010

1:00 AM

Civics 101 may not sound like fun, but a recent study released by Colonial Williamsburg indicates that Virginia’s young adults could use it.

Colonial Williamsburg and the Center for the Constitution at James Madison’s Montpelier released a study Monday revealing what it called disappointing civics trends in the 18 to 29 age demographic. Young eligible voters in Virginia display attitudes toward government, the Constitution, civic involvement and responsibility that are significantly different from those of older demographics, the study said.

“The future of Virginia and our republic depends on an actively engaged citizenry, so it is crucial that we not only become aware of our civic health, but improve our civic education,” Colonial Williamsburg President Colin Campbell said in a press release.

According to the report, only 37 percent of young voters consider voting to be a civic duty, compared to over 60 percent of those aged 55 or older. Self-reported attendance at public meetings, volunteer efforts and donations are also markedly lower in the younger demographic.

Young adults who participated in the survey also tended to view the role of government, and the Constitution’s ability to limit government, with more skepticism. Self-reported familiarities with the Constitution and law are more on par with other age groups.

Civic activism at the College of William and Mary spiked during the 2008 presidential election and the 2009 Williamsburg City Council election. Several student leaders actively participated in Scott Foster’s ’10 successful drive to become the first student elected to City Council.

Last Tuesday, approximately 39 percent of eligible voters in Williamsburg participated in the Nov. 2 midterm elections. Although it is impossible to definitively estimate student turnout, reports from precinct workers and student volunteers described student participation as “steady.”

In May 2010, turnout for Foster was described as strong. A recent survey conducted by government professor Ron Rapoport indicated that student turnout was the key to Foster’s success.

“When you look at this [election], compared to the city council [election] when everyone was revved up, it didn’t seem as energized,” Student Assembly Secretary of Public Affairs Emily Gottschalk-Marconi ’12 said. “But it’s a midterm election, and people do what they always do in midterm elections.”

Gottschalk-Marconi said that civic attitudes on campus, while less enthusiastic than during the Foster campaign, are not as apathetic as those reflected in student age demographic reports across the state.

“Students know that they have more interest, now that they have one [recent graduate] on the council,” she said. “This is a great time to get more students involved and engaged.”

Christopher Newport University government professor Quentin Kidd designed the survey used in the study. Although civic involvement is significantly less obvious among those aged 18 to 29, Kidd said that attitudes toward civic engagement are shaped by experiences.

“I think older parents and grandparents have come to appreciate the Constitution because they’ve seen it in action,” Kidd said.

He added that the way civics is taught has changed over the years. In the past, civics courses discussed the function of government and the Constitution, rather than the flaws of both. Younger generations have been taught to analyze government and the Constitution, examining the successes and failures of both.

Accordingly, young adults approach modern civic issues with less traditional approaches.

“You submit a problem to a group of younger people today and they’ll come up with 18 different solutions that don’t involve government,” he said. “[Younger generations] were taught to criticize.”

Kidd said that he does not believe that the study’s findings indicate apathy among Virginia’s young adult population, but instead that they express their civic attitudes differently than previous generations.

In a joint press release issued Monday, Colonial Williamsburg and the Center for the Constitution stated that a renewed emphasis on civic education within Virginia could positively impact attitudes toward community engagement and involvement.

While gains were made during the 2008 election — Virginia voter turnout in the 18 to 29 demographic was 58.9 percent — building on young voters’s enthusiasm for government and the electoral process is necessary for the state’s civic health, the press release said.

“I think Colonial Williamsburg and Montpelier are concerned about civic education, for better or worse,” Director of Colonial Williamsburg Publications Paul Aron said. “We are concerned as an institution about the need for civic education.”

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