As much as anything else this post may be an illustration of how far afield I’m taken in writing a post. One of my regular daily stops is the opinion section of the Christian Science Monitor, a generally excellent online newspaper. This morning when I read this in a a CSM editorial:
This week, the US Department of Education began a campaign to uplift the nation’s “civic health,” mainly through reform of higher education. It sponsored a report called “A Crucible Moment,” compiled by the Association of American Colleges and Universities, that provides ways to restore one of higher education’s mission as the “carrier of democratic values.”
The task is not easy. “I know that we can’t easily measure civic consciousness or test it or boil it down to a number on a spreadsheet. But we value it and honor it because it is central to our identity as Americans,” says US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.
my immediate reaction was Huh?! All sorts of things are jumbled together in the editorial—civic consciousness, civics education, and knowledge of the details of our government (like Which party has a majority in the U. S. Senate?).
I decided to look at one aspect of civic consciousness that is highly studied: voter turnout. As it turns out there are some things that are only weakly correlated or not correlated at all with the likelihood to turn out and vote: leisure time, race (at least in the 2008 election) and there are some things that are strongly correlated with turning out and voting: age, income, IQ (see also here), education.
I am skeptical that voter suppression is a significant reason for low turnouts among the poor (just as I am skeptical about claims of widespread systematic voting fraud). If that were the case I think we would see many, many more cases in the courts than actually are. Either that or there’s a conspiracy on an unimaginable scale. I’m pretty skeptical about conspiracies that would involve tens of thousands of conspirators all keeping their mouths shut.
However, with respect to the correlation between education and voting there’s a funny thing. Education predicts whether individuals will vote, but over time rising levels of education did not increase aggregate turnout. That’s referred to as Brody’s Puzzle, after Richard Brody who made the observation back in 1978.
One of the references above suggests something rather interesting: there may be a genetic propensity, mediated by IQ, to vote. My inclination is to think that the correlation between education and voting is mostly because education is a weak proxy for intelligence as is income (and, for that matter, age). It may be that there’s some complex of genetic predispositions, learned behaviors, and abilities that predisposes one to civic participation including voting.
I was unable to uncover any demonstration that particular curricula were associated with higher levels of voter turnout. If you’re aware of any, I would appreciate knowing about it.
My key point here is that it sounds very much as though the Department of Education is spitting into the wind on this. Civic participation and voting are probably among the many things that may be learned but not taught.
My initial reaction to the editorial was that the decline in civic participation might be related to a decline in participation in organizations for the young that encourage civic participation, e.g. the Boy Scouts. I’ll write more about the Scouts another time. Were you aware that although only 2% of the population of the U. S. are Mormons, 20% of those enrolling the Boy Scouts are Mormons? Me, neither. I can’t help but wonder if there’s some relation between that and two of the present Republican candidates for president being Mormon. Civic participation, organizational and institutional participation and support, etc. I may touch on this again.
More on genetics and voting here. The guess is that the genes mentioned influence pro-social behaviors. Basically, the more likely you are to be a joiner the more likely you are to vote. Dunno.