Dan Johnson: Preparing young people for a life of civic purpose and character

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Eighth grade math instuctor Pinyi Yao helps student Allie Jones find the right classroom on the first day of school. Pinyi Yao, 27, a Chinese National teaching 8th and 9th grade math welcomes his students on their first day of the school year at Oquirrh Hills Middle School, August 20, 2019 in Riverton.

Few things contribute as much to one’s life — and to one’s personal character — as meaningful engagement with one’s community.

Fostering civic engagement among young people is critical for the well-being of our neighborhoods, schools, cities, state, nation and world. It helps to strengthen youths’ character, enhance their connections to the common good and foster skills that will help them develop meaningful lives and 21st century career skills.

As a state, we haven’t done a very good job creating a generation of civically minded youth. Take voting, perhaps the most obvious form of civic engagement, and one of the easiest to measure. Only 16.8% of Utah young people voted in the 2018 midterm election, which was even lower than the disappointing national average of 23%. And, although Utahns can pre-register to vote at age 16, only 14% have done so.

What about other aspects of civic engagement? Only 28% of Utah young people spend time volunteering, which is higher than the national average, but not in line with community values. A recent study by BYU Professor of Family Life Laura Walker shows that community service yields tremendous benefits for teens, such as improved self-esteem, hope, gratitude, school attendance and lower rates of substance use and behavioral problems.

Boosting youths’ civic engagement may be one of the most powerful ways to foster the health and well-being of our children while promoting their educational and future professional success.

This is why I’m sponsoring a bill to address these goals. Right now, our approach to civic engagement misses the mark.

To graduate from high school, all Utah students must pass the U.S. citizenship test. Although this is useful information to have, it doesn’t come close to sparking the type of meaningful civic engagement that we want to foster in our youths. Such a requirement implies that civic life requires nothing more than rote memorization of disconnected facts, like it’s a game of trivia.

Don’t get me wrong: Utah students should demonstrate understanding of constitutional and democratic principles, concepts and processes. But that’s the job of social studies standards: to specify the developmentally appropriate curriculum content and pedagogical strategies that will get students ready for thoughtful and informed participation in civic life.

My bill, HB334, would establish a civic engagement pilot program to assess the benefits of completing a civics engagement project as a condition for receiving a high school diploma.

What would count as “civics engagement project?” That would be up to each participating local school district, according to their own ideas, local needs and local opportunities for community partnership. We want to foster innovation at the local level.

The pilot project would provide incentives for local school districts to work creatively and discover what works best in their communities. For one community, it might be a school-community garden; for others, it might be internships with local organizations; for others, it might be hands-on civics, where students identify an issue or problem they care about and work on public policy solutions.

The goal is to create meaningful opportunities for civic action, and to help youths develop skills and dispositions for a life of civic purpose and character.

HB334 makes a place for service learning as a form of experiential learning where students develop the knowledge and critical thinking skills needed for lifelong engagement in civic life.

Through their experience addressing real community needs, students will also gain a sense of self efficacy and 21st century career skills. From innovative practices at the local level we hope to find the different pathways for students to pursue a life of purpose and character.

Dan Johnson

Rep. Dan Johnson, R-Logan, represents District 4 in the Utah House of Representatives.