For the past ten years, our research team at Stanford has interviewed broad cross-sections of American youth about what U. S. citizenship means to them. Here is one high school student’s reply, not atypical: “We just had (American citizenship) the other day in history. I forget what it was.” Another student told us that “being American is not really special….I don’t find being an American citizen very important.” Another replied, “I don’t want to belong to any country. It just feels like you are obligated to this country. I don’t like the whole thing of citizen…I don’t like that whole thing. It’s like, citizen, no citizen; it doesn’t make sense to me. It’s like to be a good citizen—I don’t know, I don’t want to be a citizen…it’s stupid to me.”
Such statements reflect more than an ignorance of citizenship—though they may provide us with clues about the source of students’ present-day lack of knowledge. Beyond not knowing what U.S. citizenship entails, many young Americans today are not motivated to learn about how to become a fully engaged citizen of their country. They simply do not care about their status as American citizens. Notions such as civic virtue, civic duty, or devotion to their country mean little to them. This is not true of all young people today—there are exceptions in virtually every community—but it accurately describes a growing trend that encompasses a large portion of our younger generation.
This trend has not arisen in isolation. Indeed, the attitudes of many young Americans are closely aligned with intellectual positions that they likely have never encountered first-hand.