What Young Americans Can Learn from This Election
November 4, 2016
On Nov. 8, millions of Americans will go to the polls to vote for the next president of the United States. Some voters will bring their children with them to see a glimpse of our democracy in action.
Today, however, many young people might not fully appreciate the significance of what they’re seeing, as they know so little about the democratic process, our presidents of the past, and the important roles they have played in American history.
For two generations now, we have done a poor job of teaching young people about our country’s history. The results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress show that students score worse in American history than in any other subject — at every grade level and often overwhelmingly so. Unfortunately, just 20 percent of fourth-graders, 18 percent of eighth-graders, and 12 percent of 12th-graders are at grade-level proficiency in American history.
Amazingly, the longer students are in school, the less familiar they become with American history.
Those of us who care about passing on the lessons of our past to the next generation have only ourselves to blame if, from the very beginning, our children are failing to learn what it means to be American.
Presidential elections such as this one are a great opportunity to correct this deficiency. Through the election process, we can introduce young Americans to a more patriotic understanding of America and its great tradition of freedom, self-government, and the rule of law.
It’s also the perfect occasion for each of us to begin repairing the lack of knowledge about our presidential past with the young people in our own lives, so that they can begin to understand what the presidency means. For children, Hail to the Chief, the latest in my New York Times best-selling children’s series featuring Ellis the Elephant, is an excellent place to start. By exploring the stories of some of our greatest presidents, the book can help children understand how our highest officeholders shape and change history.
Young people will discover that there’s no single background or experience that qualifies someone to be commander-in-chief. Rather, our best leaders have brought valuable skills that were necessary at the time. Americans have chosen some exceptional leaders — tough and energetic figures who have inspired our nation.
We have also selected some unlikely presidents, who offered unique qualities when they were urgently needed.
Ellis the Elephant discovers one such example in Andrew Jackson, who rose from humble beginnings to rock the political Establishment in Washington, D.C., with his populist campaign for president. Jackson was a tough, blunt, and strong-willed leader with no political background who came to the White House promising to shake things up. Indeed, some might find themselves drawing comparisons between Andrew Jackson and Donald Trump today.
As we elect a new president on Nov. 8, consider taking a young person with you to the polls. It will certainly be an educational, memorable, and historic moment.