Don’t know much about vot­ing

The Washington Times Weekly - - Editorials -

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.

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