University of Rochester

Knowledge of Civics Makes Good Showing Nationally But some naive views of U.S. political system may turn teenagers into cynical adults

January 7, 1999

When University of Rochester Professor Richard G. Niemi and co-author Jane Junn began studying what high school students know about civics, they were predisposed to show that students do learn something in class.

"There is some subject matter that students know a good deal about along with aspects they know little about," says Niemi, professor of political science. When studying the U.S. political system, for instance, students have a competent grasp of national and local politics-or at least which government does what, Niemi and Junn found. On the topic of individual rights particularly, students are well-informed.

But high school students know very little about political parties and lobbying. And they are less informed when political issues touch on questions of race and gender.

A new book by Niemi and Junn, Civic Education: What Makes Students Learn (Yale University Press, 224 pages, $27.50), documents how much students know about a wide range of political and civics topics as well as demonstrates differences in civic knowledge when students are grouped by race, gender, and other factors. The book also explains the cognitive process by which students learn about politics. It emphasizes that, contrary to a belief widely held in some quarters, civics and government classes play an important role in teaching about politics.

The authors analyzed the results of the 1988 National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) Civics Assessment with its 150 multiple-choice items and one essay question. It is considered the most extensive assessment of civics knowledge among American youth. Niemi and Junn used test results from more than 4,200 students in12th grade. Their analysis also sets the stage for the new Civics Assessment, which will be made public this year.

A long-standing interest of Niemi's is how and what young people learn about politics. "We've got to give students a good deal of knowledge, including what politics is really like," Niemi says. "Students should know how it operates and that they should be a part of it. We want people who are able and willing to participate because they know why politics exists."

In their book, Niemi and Junn, who is assistant professor of political science at Rutgers University, recommend ways to strengthen the content of the civics curriculum to make it meaningful for students. First, they suggest that more real-world examples be included to spark awareness of and discussion of controversial ideas.

"When we say that students have a 'textbook' knowledge of how government operates, what we mean is they have a naive view of it that glosses over the fact that democratic politics is all about disagreement and the attempt to settle quarrels peacefully, satisfactorily, and in an orderly manner," they say.

Niemi and Junn believe students have an idealized view of how government operates. "The cynicism that adults develop about politics," according to the authors, "may stem, in part, from the Pollyannaish view of politics that is fostered by the avoidance of references to political controversy in civics and government classes as well as ways to deal with it."

Nationally, political scientists are becoming more interested in the content of civic education, Niemi points out. "There's a lot of evidence that citizens, especially young ones, are participating less in politics than they did in the past, and are more indifferent about politics."