Don’t know much about voting
If budding journalists are more civicminded than the average young person, the latest survey from New York University does not show it. To the contrary, the students seem shrewdly rich. Two-thirds of those surveyed in NYU’s Foundations of Journalism course would trade their vote for a year’s tuition, department chair Brooke Kroeger found. Twenty percent would trade it for an iPod, and 90 percent would give up their franchise forever for $1 million. At the same time, it is claimed, the students “value” their votes. About 70 percent still believe that one vote can make a difference.
This result is strange for a profession which counts “government watchdog” among its roles. Granted, not all 3,000 students surveyed are journalism majors. Perhaps the “starving student” mentality factors here, and surely in some cases a jaded cynic could still make a good watchdog. Even so, eagerness to hawk one’s vote is not very becoming in the watchdog profession. Surely journalism could benefit from more truly civicminded people in its ranks, and fewer cynics. No small number of these iPod voters should probably reconsider their calling.
Of course, this is part of the larger story of civic literacy and voting among young people generally. That is almost always a depressing subject. In a given election year, about 20 percent of people ages 18-29 typically vote. In 2006, a 20year high of 24 percent of this age cohort voted. But none of this changes the consistently abysmal performance when young people’s knowledge of civics and history is tested. Each year the nonprofit Intercollegiate Studies Institute surveys American history knowledge at select universities, and it routinely finds schools where the test scores of entering freshman are actually superior to those of graduating seniors. A “giant amnesia machine” is how it describes Cornell University, where freshmen scored 62 percent on its most recent test but seniors scored 57. That is a big “F” by any standard.
Do not think that civic literacy among the young is a subject of minor impact or little interest. The “Generation Y” age cohort, usually defined as those born between 1977 and 1994, will comprise onethird of eligible voters by 2015. To look at this generation’s voting habits and civic attitudes is to survey some unknown but probably large part of the future of the American electorate.
Since aging baby boomer journalism professors will not leap at the chance to lecture their students on civic virtue, it falls as usual to families and to civil-society organizations. They must show young people why voting is critical to our national well-being and our freedoms.