The Myth of Disengaged Youth

Nicole PowellSeptember 26, 2015
Photo by David Schott

I remember the moment I lost control. It is something that every teacher fears.

Not one of my 28 students is listening to a word I am saying. They are out of their seats, walking around the room, bickering with each other, shouting at each other. I flicker the lights, I wave my hands, I cross my arms and try to stare them down. The chaos continues.

This moment took place in my Grade 10 Civics course last spring on a 'CM Day'. ("Hey Miss, when is our next CM day? I'll make sure I don't skip.") CM stands for Civic Mirror. Civic Mirror is an online simulation that allows students to create a their own government with its own laws, policies, and procedures. They form political parties, hold elections, attend meetings, and some of them even go to court for committing crimes. We ‘played' about once a week over the 9 weeks of our course. At the end of the semester the Prime Minister of our class country announced that he had rigged the election by stuffing the ballot box. This revelation is what led to the chaos. Most students were outraged and the members of the Prime Minister's political party, his accomplices, were thrilled. This incident proved to me that young people can get both excited and angry about government when they are directly involved in the process. It made me start to question the myth of disengaged youth.

CHV2O is a compulsory half credit course that all high school students in Ontario must complete in order to earn their diploma. Some teachers dread teaching this course, and many students dread taking it. I love it - and last spring I had the privilege of teaching Civics during the Ontario General Election. The day after the debates I decided to show my class the video of the education segment. I thought there might be some issues my students would be interested in and to be honest, 75 minutes is a long time to keep teenagers' attention and I was running low on Rick Mercer video clips. I was shocked by their response - they were completely engaged. When most of the adult population doesn't take the time to watch the debates how was it that my rowdy class of 28 grade 10 students could sit quietly for 15 full minutes without looking at their phones. We ended up watching every segment of the debate at my students' request. They picked up on everything - from the strategic outfit choices to the hand gestures (they mimicked Kathleen Wynne's full arm robot gestures any change they got). They asked thoughtful questions and wanted to do more research.

My students were definitely engaged. Throughout the course they shared their strong opinions about education, health care funding, our electoral system, and the senate. So why, in 3 years when they turn 18 and can vote in a real election are they not likely to show up?

Is it a lack of excitement? There is no Canadian version of Olivia Pope on TV making government look sexy and we certainly don't have our own Michelle Obama doing push ups on Ellen. Do we need more drama? More fashion? More fun?

Is it a lack of education? Do we make Civics a grade 12 course? Do we add compulsory political studies classes to all college and university programs?

Maybe young people just need a bit of encouragement. If you tell someone they are ugly or stupid enough times they will start to believe you. Does the same go for our ‘disengaged youth'? Are we (the grown ups) making the problem worse by complaining about it?

I'm not sure what the answer is, but I do know that we need to stop accepting the excuse that youth are disengaged. I know that it is not true.

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