Mistrust” of Political System Begins with Poor Education

Why is there so much “mistrust” of government and political institutions? The University of Washington’s Graduate School of Public Affairs has been asking this question in a series of provocative public discussions this winter. Many explanations are offered, including lack of sufficiently stringent ethics reforms or, on the contrary, too many misguided reforms; jaundiced media coverage of politics; the expanding and ubiquitous reach of government that excites new opportunities for corruption; and, of course, the obvious possibility that mistrust merely and fairly reflects the untrustworthy behavior of the recent crop of politicians. Some commentators even think that popular mistrust is purposely generated by interests who seek to discredit government in order to halt the march of progressive social programs.
Weighing these explanations makes for an interesting debate, but, upon reflection, if I had to pick the most crucial contribution to public mistrust of government it would be something more fundamental: poor civics education in high school and college.

Ignorance is a great breeder of indifference in almost any subject, from sports to art to science–to politics. It is one short step then to disparagement of the field of which one is ignorant.

People who have studied the political process and taken part in it may become irritated over some candidate or campaign, but they seldom express a lack of interest, let alone cynicism, about the system itself. They know that politics is a robust activity that we employ not because we prize its negative attributes–from false promises to name-calling–but because we would rather tolerate such annoyances in a democracy than have public decisions made by dictators or mobs. Politics provides us choices; its unattractive competitive features are among the smaller costs of freedom. But this understanding seems lost on people who discount politics or damn its participants.

Unfortunately, a growing share of the indifferent and hostile are young people. A study released last month from the University of California at Los Angeles shows that college freshmen nationally are less interested in politics now than at any time in at least thirty years. The proportion who believe that “keeping up with political affairs” is important has declined by half, from 57.8 percent in 1966 to 28.5 percent today. (You can imagine how low the percentage would be for voting age youth who do not attend college).

This study tracks well with voting turnout among eligible young voters, 18-21, which also has been sinking. It went up briefly in 1992, perhaps partly in response to MTV’s “Rock the Vote” campaign, but even then it reached only 39.9 percent. A Peter Hart poll of 15-24 year olds found little recognition of “the duties and responsibilities of good citizenship;” only 12 percent mentioned political involvement of any kind, including voting. There should be no doubt that ignorance, not some sage sense of moral superiority, is the cause of this indifference. Objective knowledge of public life has been in decline since the 1960s. A review of “studies conducted over the past 40 years” by the (Los Angeles) Times Mirror Center for People and the Press showed, for example, that “young people were 20 percent less likely than middle-aged people to give the correct answer to 74 questions on current events.” In contrast, until the late 1960s, the review noted, “young Americans were as interested as their elders in the large news events of their times.”

The reports go on and on: high school students who can’t find Japan on a map; students who don’t recognize the Bill of Rights. All demonstrate the decline in instruction in civics, as well as geography, economics and history. Sometimes the ignorance is almost sublime. An official at the Federal Elections Commission advised me a few years ago that his office had been contacted by high school students wondering where they could get information on the Electoral College; they were thinking of applying for admission.

The blame for this–and it is blameworthy–lies with K-12 school boards and universities that have undervalued instruction in the theory and practice of citizenship, including politics. Almost any trendy social idea is placed ahead of it. For example, later this month at the same University of Washington that commendably sponsors the program on mistrust in politics, the faculty once again will consider a proposal to require most students to take a course in “ethnic studies.” Learning about other cultures in the world is highly desirable, but ethnic studies too often is mainly about ideological assaults on our own culture. One example at the UW is a course that treats the first settlement of America as a “holocaust” that we “unwittingly celebrate each Thanksgiving.” Here is trivialization, by comparison, of the Nazi holocaust, compounded by an a-historical application of today’s political correctness to the 17th century.

Meanwhile, there is no requirement to study the system of self- government that developed in this country over the four intervening centuries? But can you justify requiring courses that debunk a system and a culture you have not adequately explained on their own terms?

Similarly, in the common schools one sees a number of new textbooks that error in their slighting accounts of the United States as badly as old texts waxed fulsome in praise. Writing of a badly flawed federal government report on curriculum standards that continues to downplay western democratic development, Paul Gagnon asks recently inThe Atlantic , “In what other country…are students required to study other cultures but not their own?”

Neglect of our democratic tradition in either high school or college defies the very idea of public education. When the University of Virginia was founded by Thomas Jefferson in 1818 it was expressly dedicated to teaching good citizenship. The Jefferson-inspired “Rockfish Gap plan” that shaped the UVA, and subsequently exerted its influence nationally, stated that the first purposes of education are “(t)o form the statesmen, legislators and judges on whom public prosperity and individual happiness are so much to depend.” Jefferson also was an early voice for creating a public education system through common schools, expressing his belief that the very safety of our form of government required an educated citizenry capable of responsible democratic participation.

Even a dim reflection of the brilliant vision of a Jefferson would shine a bright light on the “mistrust” of politics and government that we presently experience.

Bruce Chapman

Cofounder and Chairman of the Board of Discovery Institute
Bruce Chapman has had a long career in American politics and public policy at the city, state, national, and international levels. Elected to the Seattle City Council and as Washington State's Secretary of State, he also served in several leadership posts in the Reagan administration, including ambassador. In 1991, he founded the public policy think tank Discovery Institute, where he currently serves as Chairman of the Board and director of the Chapman Center on Citizen Leadership.