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The Solution Down the Hall: How Introductory Courses in American Government Can Engage Students
Unformatted Document Text:  What is more, the reliance on registration and voting as sole indicators of political engagement neglects other modes of involvement. Some assume that voting is the foundation of greater engagement, but others have suggested this is not necessarily the case. Would we consider a youth disengaged if he does not vote, even though he pays close attention to the news, writes his member of Congress, discusses politics with friends and family, and is a member of several political interest groups? Is voting more significant than advocacy on a policy matter? A myopic focus on voting encourages the atomization of politics (something to be done alone, in private) and episodic participation (to be done every two years, in early November). Once again, are we striving for more voters or for a more engaged, active citizenry? After a rather sobering conversation about the limitations of “efficient” registration techniques, our conversation at Wingspread turned to institutions that might promote long-term engagement in public life. The focus, noted one of the participants, should be on existing institutions that can draw youth into politics for the long-term, and in meaningful ways. But are there any such institutions? Indeed there are. Two of the most important institutions for linking new generations to the political process are political parties and institutions of higher learning. The role of parties is discussed elsewhere (Shea and Green, 2007). This paper focuses higher education. More precisely, it draws a light on an oft-ignored source of civic skills and knowledge for democratic participation: introductory courses in American Government (AG). Over 800,000 students take this course each year and it seems quite clear that this important offering has the potential help draw new citizens into the democratic process. How do AG instructors perceive the issue of youth disengagement? Do these instructors believe that AG courses should be used to draw students into the political process; is this an

Authors: Shea, Daniel.
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What is more, the reliance on registration and voting as sole indicators of political
engagement neglects other modes of involvement. Some assume that voting is the foundation of
greater engagement, but others have suggested this is not necessarily the case. Would we
consider a youth disengaged if he does not vote, even though he pays close attention to the news,
writes his member of Congress, discusses politics with friends and family, and is a member of
several political interest groups? Is voting more significant than advocacy on a policy matter? A
myopic focus on voting encourages the atomization of politics (something to be done alone, in
private) and episodic participation (to be done every two years, in early November). Once again,
are we striving for more voters or for a more engaged, active citizenry?
After a rather sobering conversation about the limitations of “efficient” registration
techniques, our conversation at Wingspread turned to institutions that might promote long-term
engagement in public life. The focus, noted one of the participants, should be on existing
institutions that can draw youth into politics for the long-term, and in meaningful ways. But are
there any such institutions?
Indeed there are. Two of the most important institutions for linking new generations to
the political process are political parties and institutions of higher learning. The role of parties is
discussed elsewhere (Shea and Green, 2007). This paper focuses higher education. More
precisely, it draws a light on an oft-ignored source of civic skills and knowledge for democratic
participation: introductory courses in American Government (AG). Over 800,000 students take
this course each year and it seems quite clear that this important offering has the potential help
draw new citizens into the democratic process.
How do AG instructors perceive the issue of youth disengagement? Do these instructors
believe that AG courses should be used to draw students into the political process; is this an


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