My son came home from school on Monday, Sept. 30, and asked me if I was fired. He knew the government was on the verge of shutting down, and he knew I that often work at the U.S. Capitol. He hadn't yet figured out that I was not actually employed by the government and therefore would continue to work, shutdown or not. He gets it now, but I doubt that even after hearing about the shutdown for two weeks, he could give me an accurate definition of "furlough."
I don't blame him for being confused. A lot of us are. I still can't explain why more than half of government employees worked during the shutdown. Or why lawmakers voted to pay all of them, working or furloughed, but continued to keep the government closed for another week.
These would be good questions to explore in a classroom, even if we don't know all the answers. The danger of ignoring these topics in schools, either because there isn't enough time or the conversations can get heated, is that children will become disengaged politically. What they learn in school should, theoretically, correspond with the dialogue they hear in the broader world.
Disenfranchisement has consequences. A report released earlier this month from the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning & Engagement (CIRCLE) found that 55 percent of citizens between the ages of 18 and 19 did not vote in the 2012 election. Moreover, youth are frequently misinformed. For example, 51 percent of survey respondents under 25 thought that the government spends more on foreign aid than Social Security, when in fact Social Security outlays are 20 times that of foreign aid.
There's another problem. Partisan divides are so broad these days that it is difficult to come up with a noncontroversial way to describe even the most basic current events. Trayvon Martin? The rise of the tea party? If you still don't buy how hard this is, try explaining the government shutdown to your child in a way that is 1) completely nonpartisan and 2) makes sense to him or her.
"For a young person, political discourse as a whole can be confusing and may promote blanket skepticism or cynicism, and we should acknowledge that this is both a rational response and one intended by those who would poison the well of civil deliberation," the CIRCLE report said.
This is tough stuff, no question about it. Some teachers worry about how to talk about politics without offending families and communities. About one-fourth of high school civics and American government teachers told CIRCLE that they thought parents and community members would object if they brought political discussions into the classroom.
Should conversations about political issues occur in schools? If so, what are the best ways to promote them? How should partisan rhetoric be handled? How can political discourse fit in with other necessary curricula? Is there time to teach it? What kinds of training, if any, do teachers need? How can schools encourage parents to engage in similar conversations? What does a community need to do to support civic engagement of its young people? How can we keep kids from becoming disillusioned with politics so they don't drop out of civic engagement as young adults?