Today, around the country, students from Kindergarten through higher education are engaged in protests concerning gun violence. However one feels about the issues being debated, students assuming the rights and responsibilities of democratic citizenship in their communities is something to celebrate. What students are doing today is consistent with our nation’s recent and not so recent history of young people becoming engaged in their communities and learning the skills of citizenship and civic life. Let’s consider just a few examples.
Running for Governor in Kansas
In Kansas, which has no age restriction on becoming governor, six teenagers are running for the position, and are running serious campaigns around issues. And their political persuasions run across the spectrum, a mix of conservatism, liberalism, and libertarianism.
Being engaged in the issues, aware of the rules and requirements for office, and taking action to pursue change are not inherently conservative or liberal civic virtues. These young people are engaged in civic action in their state because they saw a need and decided to try and fill it.
Birmingham Children’s March
The Birmingham Children’s March involved more than 1000 kids skipping classes all across Birmingham and marching in favor of civil rights, despite threats and violence perpetrated by people far older than them. And they swore to continue doing it until change was on the horizon. They modeled for their fellow citizens the better angels of our nature and stood strong in the face of adult persecution and violation of their civil liberties.
Tinker v. Des Moines (1969)
‘Students do not shed their rights at the schoolhouse door.’ A legendary decision, arising as a result of 13 year olds protesting a war they saw as unjust. Indeed, the Tinker decision, and the actions of those students involved in that case, have in some ways inspired the movement today., with the Parkland students citing the Tinker case as something they learned about that helped show what can happen when students become civically engaged.
The Pro-Life/Pro-Choice Movements, Gun Rights, Student Busing, Black Lives Matter, and the ERA
Ongoing debates about controversial civic, political, and societal issues have always involved students, on both sides. Whether arguing and protesting over abortion, pointing out that there are is not uniformity among young people in the gun debate, wading knee deep into the disputes about busing students across northern cities like Boston to integrate schools, marching in the streets in defense of black lives and liberties, or taking sides for or against the Equal Rights Amendment, student civic activism is something that has always been an important pathway into civic life for young people. It is their first taste of the possibilities of civic life and fervor, and encouraging young people to engage with those possibilities can only strengthen the core of American democracy.