What Our Young Voters Need to Know

By teaching them about the conflicts of the past that shape the present, we can help them become more invested in the future.
October 17, 2016 AT 6:15 AM
By Lisa Heuvel  |  Contributor
Manager of program development initiatives for Colonial Williamsburg's Institute for Teacher Professional Development

With just a few weeks remaining until the elections, candidates for office at all levels of government are working tirelessly to sway a group of voters that has been historically difficult to reach: young Americans. But while having an interested and active young voter base is essential to a healthy democracy, what is even more important is that they are well informed on the challenges our nation is facing, its history, and how the results of these elections could impact their lives and the lives of other Americans. After all, these new voters are making U.S. history themselves.

Recognition of the importance of an informed electorate is not new, of course. In 1786, Thomas Jefferson, citing the importance of "the diffusion of knowledge among the people," wrote, "No other sure foundation can be devised for the preservation of freedom, and happiness."

Today, young Americans typically possess at least a general awareness of the most important issues at hand. But more often than not they lack a thorough understanding of the history behind these challenges and how they originally became important topics of debate.

Take the issue of immigration, which has been such a focus of the 2016 presidential election. In 1798, Congress passed the Alien and Sedition Acts, and President John Adams signed them into law. Among other things, the laws granted the president the power to deport any immigrants deemed "dangerous to the peace and safety of the United States." Jefferson and James Madison raised opposition to the acts in the state legislatures. Kentucky and Virginia ruled them invalid, providing the first hints of the nullification crisis that would later grip the nation and lead to the Civil War.

Our nation's history and national identity are portrayed in the push and pull of unity vs. diversity, individual wealth vs. common wealth, law vs. ethics, and freedom vs. equality. At various times in history our policies have favored one or the other. The nation's continuing challenges in education, immigration, economics and race make us yearn for simple solutions, not only in the classroom, but in our communities and the halls of Congress.

By studying the conflicts of the past, students will see that the nation and the Founders themselves have struggled to balance competing interests to deal with problems we still encounter today. Educators, by prioritizing teaching the history of our nation's beginnings, can empower students to become more invested in today's political outcomes.

So how can we develop a new class of more invested voters? And where do we start? We must reduce barriers to access for all students and increase buy-in from educators. In an effort to address this head-on, we developed the Colonial Williamsburg Education Resource Library. As a free online resource, this expansive library contains more than 200 videos, lesson plans, interactive learning experiences and other teaching resources, all correlated to state and national standards.

Other organizations, such as the Center for Civic Education, are also dedicated to building civic engagement among today's young Americans. Its program, "We the People: The Citizen and the Constitution," has regional and state competitions for middle-school and high-school students that culminate in a mock congressional hearing in Washington, D.C.

Smaller programs such as the National Student/Parent Mock Election allow teachers, students, and parents to cast simulated votes in federal and state elections. It's a practice ground for students to do the work of becoming informed citizens: researching candidates, forming opinions and then expressing those opinions in the form of a vote.

We understand however, that without interest and support from our nation's educators, these valuable programs and resources will never reach their full audience. As part of the Colonial Williamsburg Institute of Teacher Professional Development, we gather teachers from 50 states and diverse backgrounds to debate current issues through the lens of American history. This robust program aims to improve teacher understanding of active citizen engagement and increase their commitment to encouraging their students to participate in civic activity.

Now, more than ever, we need a strong national commitment to improving the quality of education in history and civics for our future generations of voters and leaders. Without an understanding of where we have been, there is no way to determine where we are going.