“It strikes me as funny that we call our political organizations ‘parties,” writes Ann Beeson. “Elections and political parties are the antithesis of fun. It’s no wonder that many young people avoid them.”
A lecturer at the University of Texas and former national associate legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union, Beeson observes in a New York Times op-ed that young people “are some of the most active and committed people I know” yet stay away from the polls in droves. “Three causes are worth exploring,” she writes.
“First of all, many young people just don’t see the connection between voting and their commitment to improve their communities, advocate for a cause, or change the world. Secondly, there are very real grounds for political cynicism. And finally, let’s face it, civic engagement can be a snore.”
Civic engagement, Beeson writes, lacks “the fun factor.” It conjures up “images of neighborhood meetings that plod along in rooms with stained carpets, cheap paneling and fluorescent lighting.”
Sure, Beeson want young people “scared straight into voting” by emphasizing the price of their inaction. But most of all, she says, “it should be terrific fun to vote and to stay involved after election day.”
“What if the average civic gathering – whether it’s a political rally, grassroots group, school task force, or city council – involved cook-offs, improv or gaming? What if we devised clever ways to scale up what’s working, instead of whining for a living? What if we banned Robert’s Rules of Order and actually got to know one another?”
We’ve heard this before in education. If we want kids to care, we have to make it fun and engaging. And while I agree with the impulse, there’s something to be said—both in education and in civic engagement—for also acknowledging the idea that we owe a debt to ourselves and history to stir ourselves from the couch and embrace mature responsibility.
“Has the nation become so self-indulgent that we are no longer motivated to act for the greater good or are the issues just less significant and less motivating than in the past?” a friend asked me this morning after reading Beeson’s piece. It’s a good question. I don’t have the answer, but I’m reasonably sure that a better grasp of our nation’s history wouldn’t hurt. If we don’t understand and value the price that has been paid over generations to found, protect, and ensure the viability of our democracy, we can hardly be surprised if our children take its continuance as a given.
Cook-offs, improv and gaming? The Freedom Riders were not lured onto luxury coaches with DVD players and giddy shouts of “road trip!” The Greatest Generation won WWII and faced down communism. D-Day was not, I suspect, positioned as a great way to meet French girls. Unless I’m very much mistaken, the Declaration of Independence did not include the Founders’ pledge to each other of “our Lives, our Fortunes, our sacred Honor…and free beer!”
I’m being churlish, I know. Forgive me. But if making voting and civic engagement “fun” is what it takes to stir young people to take act in their own self-interest, perhaps we will be no poorer if we let grownups decide things.