Friday, October 7, 2011

Boosting Kids’ Political Smarts: Competitive News Quizzes

I haven’t been able to stop thinking about the whole who’s-better-known-Leo-Messi-or-Hillary-Clinton/my-kid’s-teacher-doesn’t-know-who-our-governor-is post. It’s really been bugging me.

More specifically, it’s bugging me that, in spite of the massive quantity of news that now bombards us from all directions and at all times on our smartphones, computers, radios and TVs via the good old fashioned news media or social media like Facebook and Twitter, that some people still remain clueless about the world around them and not know something really basic, like who’s in charge of your state or why Hillary Clinton is on TV again.

Is it that many people don’t care about what’s happening outside of their areas of interest? Is it that they don’t want to know? Are they filling their heads with all the latest on sports or reality TV therefore there’s no space left for, say, pesky news stories about presidential elections, Wall Street bailouts or democratic uprisings in the Middle East, or, for that matter in cities all over America right now in the form of the Occupy Together (best known as Occupy Wall Street) crowd?

I remember when being aware of the news and of the basics of government (like who the major elected officials are) became important to me. I was in high school when my social studies teacher, Mr. Mehegan gave our class a pop quiz. The quiz asked us things like the names of the U.S. senators from our state as well as the names of the prime ministers of England and Canada. We were asked how many members there are in the House of Representatives. I performed wretchedly on that quiz. I knew I should have known those answers. They seemed like basic questions that anyone who paid a modicum of attention to the world would know. Only I didn’t. I vowed to change that.

Flash-forward 30-something years to another social studies teacher, this one in middle school. This man had a similar impact on my oldest children when they were sixth graders last year. He started giving his students a weekly news quiz where, every Monday, the kids would form teams and compete against one another, fielding questions on topics ranging from hard news (international, national and local) and sports, to pop culture. The fact that it had been turned into a game made my competitive children eager to actually start paying attention to the news stories on the TV, to scan the pages of the dead tree newspapers to which I subscribe and to ask The Spouse and me about the biggest news events of the week. They were really into it. We need more of this.

Earlier this year, the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press released a study assessing the public’s political knowledge, and overall, the results were dispiriting. For example, only 38 percent of the respondents knew which political party controls the House of Representatives and only 43 percent knew that John Boehner was the Speaker of the House. (I feel compelled to note that the results of the poll proved me right and my youngest son wrong on the “who knows Hillary Clinton” question in that 73 percent of those polled knew that Hillary Clinton is our Secretary of State.)

When Pew broke down the results by age groups, 63 percent of 18-29-year-olds could name the founder of Facebook, as compared to 25 percent of those over 65. Those in the 50-64 age bracket were, overall, the best informed.

A poll taken by Newsweek earlier this year led the magazine to proclaim that many Americans are ignorant on issues pertaining to government, politics and history, so ignorant that 38 percent would fail a citizenship test. Among the results:
  • 29 percent couldn’t name the vice president
  • 73 percent couldn’t identify why the Americans were involved in the Cold War 
  • 44 percent didn’t know what the Bill of Rights is 
  • 6 percent couldn’t name the date on which America celebrates Independence Day
What I think we need to remedy this paucity of political and governmental knowledge is more competition, at least in schools, like my children enjoyed in sixth grade. Make it fun for the kids to vie against other students in the battle for news supremacy, they'll learn something in the process. These are future voters we’re talking about here.

Note: I extolled the virtues of political mothers in my latest Pop Culture and Politics column over on Mommy Tracked.

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