Date of Award

12-2012

Degree Type

Honors College Thesis

Department

History

First Advisor

Dr. Deanne Nuwer

Advisor Department

History

Abstract

Former United States Representative Lee Hamilton once explained what it takes to be a citizen of the United Stated. He stated, “Citizenship requires both knowledge about government and the ability to be involved in governance. It means knowing how to identify and inform oneself about issues, explore and evaluate possible solutions, and then act to resolve problems. It demands that you know how to interact respectfully with others. And it asks that you accept responsibility for meeting your community’s and the nation’s challenges.” (Hamilton, 1) This quote comes from a well-known civics program used in American high schools today called We the People. The purpose of this program is to help educate high school students in Civic Education. In addition, We the People informs students of the opportunities they have to participate politically in local and national civic government. Young people should be prepared for the responsibilities of citizenship in a democratic society.

High school teachers in America today shoulder the principal responsibility for preparing students for the demands of citizenship and civic responsibility. The National Curriculum Standards for High School Social Studies Teachers (NCSS) clearly expects that students understand what civic participation is and how they can become involved in civic engagement. In addition, they must understand their role as a citizen in their community, nation, and the world, as well as how they can make a positive difference. The NCSS clearly states that “High school students should increasingly be able to recognize the rights and responsibilities of citizens in identifying societal needs, setting directions for public policies, and working to support both individual dignity and the common good. They will become familiar with methods of analyzing important public issues and evaluating different recommendations for dealing with these issues.” (NCSS, 1) Students are expected to understand the importance of civic practice and engagement. Yet, there is considerable evidence that, despite formal education in citizenship and civic duty in their senior year, many graduating high school students have a low or negative perception of their civic responsibilities. (NCCS, 1)

In a representative democratic system, such as the United States, voting to select public officials is counted as a major civic obligation. Civic responsibility and the importance of voting should be taught in High School American History and American Government courses. According to the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE), 53 percent of Americans under the age of thirty voted in the 2008 Presidential election. CIRCLE looked at the 2000 election and determined that among young people voter turnout rose 11 percent from 2000 to 2008. However, nearly one half of citizens from the ages of 18-30 are not voting. In 2008, 70 percent of the young voters had gone to college, meaning that college-educated youth were much more likely to vote. Furthermore, voters who earned a high school diploma represented only 24 percent of the total. (CIRCLE, 1-2) The Center of Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement also provided statistics on the state of Mississippi regarding the 2008 election. In that state, 56 percent of citizens from the age of 18-29 voted in the 2008 election. Although this level is above the national average, it is evident that many young people avoid voting. (Kawashima-Ginsberg, Nover, Kirby, 1)

Generalizing from such data, the National Alliance of Civic Education concludes that high school students have not mastered an understanding of what it means to be an informed and active citizen. Donavan R. Walling, senior consultant for the Center for Civic Education, suggests that in education today there is a nearly exclusive focus on testing in the subjects of math and reading. As a result, civic education receives limited emphasis, resulting in poor perceptions among students of their civic responsibilities. (Wichowsky, 2) In 1999, the National Association of Secretaries of State conducted a nationwide study of American youth. Fifty-five percent of respondents agreed that schools do not do a very good job of providing young people the information they need to vote. In addition, this study indicated that young people lack meaningful understanding of the democratic process and citizenship. (Wichowsky, 3)

This proposed study will pursue the issue of students’ preparedness for civic life at the local level, attempting to answer the following specific research question: What are South Mississippi High School seniors’ perceptions of their civic duties and responsibilities?

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