Jeff Harris, Junior State of America: “Quality civic education yields active, involved, engaged citizens.”

The nonprofit CEO proposes to restore civic education as a priority in schools.

Jeff Harris is the CEO of Junior State of America, a non-profit dedicated to promoting civic education in high schools. Image credit: Junior State of America
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New findings from the Pew Research Center show that Americans are more polarized than ever. They are also civically disengaged.

Voter turnout rates in the United States are low in comparison to other advanced industrialized nations. According to FairVote.org, roughly 60 percent of Americans vote in presidential years, and only 40 percent turn out for mid-terms. In contrast, the typical voter turnout in OECD countries is 70 percent, while countries such as Australia, Sweden, and Belgium have turnout rates between 80 percent and 90 percent.

Could better civic education in America’s schools encourage better citizenship and civic participation? Jeff Harris, Chief Executive Officer of the non-profit Junior State of America (JSA), argues yes. Founded 80 years ago, JSA is a leading promoter of civic education and is also the nation’s largest student-run organization, with more than 500 chapters in 35 states. Among the JSA’s programs are a “summer school” for high school students and regular national conferences for student leaders. Harris argues that civic education can prepare young people to participate constructively in civil society – and help minimize the harsher impacts of polarization. This interview has been edited for length.

 R3.0: First of all, how do you define “civic education”?

Harris: Broadly defined, “civic education” gives people not just knowledge but the skills and values they need to participate as active citizens in a democratic society. Quality civic education yields active, involved, engaged citizens.

The knowledge piece means knowing both your rights and responsibilities as an active citizen. Part of that is having knowledge of the structure of government – how things work – but also knowing what is expected of you and what you can expect from the investments you make as part of a broader society.

The skills and values include how to engage with others to the benefit of the community in a way that is fair, ethical and beneficial to all. There are many skills and values that you can’t really impart from reading a textbook or doing well on a civics test – like understanding what it means both to honor the will of the majority and protect the rights of the minority.

For example, kids on a playground might take a vote to figure out what game to play. But after the vote comes the responsibility to behave in a way so that everybody is still part of the group. Do people who’ve lost the vote walk off the playground, or do they still participate? And what’s the responsibility of the people who’ve won to make everyone feel comfortable?

R3.0: How much emphasis does the average school put on civic education today?

Harris: It’s a big problem. Most schools don’t focus on civics education either in the narrow textbook sense or in the broader sense of building skills, values and habits.

In the 1950s and ’60s, most schools had a course in “current events,” but those have largely disappeared. Most schools require a government course or civics course, but it’s usually in the 12th grade and not before. So you have a situation where just as folks are getting out of high school – they’re about to turn 18 and become full voting members of society – we give them a semester’s worth of civics. It’s too little too late.

Most schools are also not democratic institutions. Students are told where to go, when to be there, and what classes to take. In a few instances across the country there are schools or administrations that give students some opportunity to participate in school-wide decision-making, but that’s a rarity. From the time they start school until they graduate, young people are not exposed to the real experience of self-government. And then all of a sudden we expect them to have good strong civic skills. It’s just not effective.

R3.0: What are the consequences of having young people launched into the world without these skills? Do you blame the lack of adequate civic education for the more partisan aspects of our political culture right now?

Harris: I don’t know if I would go so far as to blame where we are in terms of polarization on the lack of civic education, but I can certainly see how better civic education and better civic learning outcomes can affect democratic debate and institutions.

[For example,] in today’s climate where our news sources are becoming polarized, it’s not surprising that the electorate is becoming more polarized. People sit down and watch the news or they go to certain blogs and read about the news, and they feel they are informed.

But if the source is biased, they are only getting part of the picture. The responsibility of a good citizen is to become informed and understand when they might be reading or listening to a news source that’s biased and take the time to hear the other side with an open mind. That’s the sort of civic habit or value that good civic education can produce.

You need people to be engaged and informed, or you get the government you deserve. For all the complaining people do about Congress, we put them there – all of those people in Congress actually won elections. When we’re looking to blame someone, we can look in the mirror.

R3.0: What is Junior State of America doing in particular to promote better civic skills?

Harris: We give young people the opportunity to talk about, discuss and debate controversial issues in an environment where there’s tolerance and understanding. It’s really emphasized that we’re talking about the issues, and we’re not attacking the people.

That’s a core value of good civic participation. It’s hard to solve political problems if you’re sitting across the table from someone you don’t respect or whom you think is “evil” or “dumb” just because of their opinion on an issue. That writ large across the body politic is what’s causing a lot of paralysis and polarization.

Our chapters hold activities like debates on current topics, but they are also engaged in their community. They run voter registration drives for their schools and for their community. They’ll bring in political guest speakers so students get personal contact with school board members and city council members.

Three times a year, the chapters will get together at major overnight conventions that are also student-run. We’ve got student leaders who are managing conventions of up to 1,000 people in some cases. The other piece of our program is the summer program, which is more academic in nature for students who really want to do a deep dive in political science and governance issues.

The fact that JSA is student-run is a core benefit of the program because the students feel and learn the responsibility of leadership. And as they go out and promote civic education, they promote greater awareness of the issues in their community and the world around them. That message coming from a student to another student has much more impact than we adults telling students, “You need to learn about issue X or you need to engage in issue Y.“

R3.0: What real-world impacts have you seen from students participating in these programs?

Harris: Not every JSA member wants to run for President, but we do have a good number of alumni who have sought and won elected office or who are working in public policy or who are public servants on the local, state and national level.

The real impact for people no matter what they do later on in life is that they have good civic skills and habits to be engaged in whatever community they are in, and they know how to engage in a productive way. You see a lot of our JSA alumni taking the lead in local community groups or in a professional society, and they get enough of the people skills and political skills to bring a community together, focus on solving problems and move that community forward.

If we can instill good solid values of fairness and representation and openness in our youth, by the time that folks are looking around to find people to lead a city or a state or the nation, you have a broader pool of people who have the right value set, and we’re more likely to get better outcomes out of our government.

R3.0: What more should policymakers, parents, schools do to make more space for civic education?

Harris: I know that resources are limited – and the school day is limited too – but civics courses should occur earlier on in the school career.

But outside of dedicating resources, [schools] can open up opportunities for students to come together and solve problems, whether it’s giving students a seat at the table in decision-making at the school site level or the school district level or [encouraging] more participation in the PTA. Letting students be more involved in decisions that affect their lives is not necessarily resource-intensive but it has a huge impact.

Policymakers, teachers and administrators shouldn’t be afraid of student participation or even the outcomes that are yielded from that student participation.That outcome might be exactly what the administration wanted or it might be the opposite, but the broader impact of letting students have that voice and telling students that their voice matters prepares them for participation in the broader society.

The other thing that policymakers can do is open up opportunities for students of diverse backgrounds to come together and discuss issues or to work on problems together. It’s one thing for people who all come from the same background to agree on a problem and agree on a solution. It’s a little more challenging to bring people with different perspectives together, especially at a young age, and do the same thing.

But that’s what we’re doing in the adult world – or are trying to do – and a lot of times we fail at that because we haven’t had the experience of sitting across the table from someone you disagree with and still getting to a common solution.

R3.0: Were you a member of JSA yourself in high school?

Harris: I was a member of JSA in Los Angeles, and I wouldn’t be the person I am today.

When I was in high school I was really shy, and I was quiet. I didn’t step forward. I was probably the last person to raise my hand on a subject. But at the same time, I had some smarts and knew what was going on. I had lots of opinions and ideas, but it was JSA where I found not only the confidence to come to the forefront and voice my opinion but also the training to do so.

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