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When and Why Do We Become Politically Aware

by Kia Wassenaar

High school is the space in which students make the transition from politically disinterested children to politically aware adults. Through part-time jobs, discussions at the dinner table, assigned reading, first love’s, standardized tests, and Friday night football games, teenagers are supposed to form their own beliefs in order to make informed decisions as responsible citizens.

But is political awareness something that can be acquired only when it becomes necessary or does it take years of gradual learning to make the transition?

One of the biggest factors in this shift is the amount of exposure a student has had to foundational knowledge. Seniors have generally taken more classes and have come in contact with more literature and history than younger students, and thus have an easier time of putting politics in context. In fact, in most public schools, students don’t take United States History until their junior year, making it difficult to understand issues in pre-existing American systems because they lack that foundational information.

Moreover, although most history classes fit under the category of Social Studies, few classes make the full leap to putting that history in modern day context; there is so much material to cover, that current events often get left in the lurch. So, even if students do have some historical foundation, the connection is rarely drawn between the past and the events that are unfolding today, contributing even further to a delayed interest in government and public policy.

One reason many students cited for delayed interest was their age. Freshmen in high school are usually fourteen or fifteen years old, still years away from getting a vote. “It’s not really relevant right now,” said Christina Roach, a freshman here at Monticello. This belief was echoed by most underclassmen and even a couple juniors, who said that they would probably become more interested as they neared 18 years old.

Most seniors did indicate that they had become, or were in the process of becoming, more interested in politics. And though many did cite their age, or their previous classes, the overwhelming reason for increased interest in politics was AP United States Government, an exclusively senior course.

Dr. Jim Huneycutt has been teaching AP Government for nearly 10 years and taught World History for almost 20 years before that.

“You know, there’s this big umbrella called Social Studies, and the discipline of History sits in the middle of that curriculum. It’s the social science that’s taught the most,” says Huneycutt. “Government is sort of the way they teach it in school as a hybrid of political science and civics education, so it’s not a pure political science course and not purely civics education, but that’s the purpose of it: to prepare citizens to be part of the system.”

So when students are put in a class focused solely on becoming politically responsible citizens, their interest and awareness skyrockets.

“Being a citizen in this sort of system is not merely a spectator sport. Justice Brandeis said that the office of citizen is more important than the office of president; that it is an obligation. It is up to us, not just to elect representatives and turn away, but to elect representatives and guide them.”

Political awareness is not developing naturally in young people. It’s often a last minute topic that gets slipped in at the end of senior year. Maybe if the importance of being and active, informed citizen was stressed from an earlier age, or if national curriculums devoted more time to explaining today’s issues, meaningful interest in politics would develop over time rather than occurring as a forced shift right before turning 18.

“When you hit high school, 16, 17, 18, those are the people who have the best vantage point to see where we are going,” said Huneycutt. “When you get older, it’s hard to change.”

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