An Educated and Engaged Citizenry:  The Foundation of A Democracy

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Just as important as helping students find their voice is helping them learn how to use it. Today, Dr. Nancy Allen Mastro takes a look at what schools can do to promote civil discourse and encourage students to become engaged citizens in our democratic society. 

Dr. Allen-Mastro began her career in education as an elementary school teacher and later spent 26 years as a school administrator, serving in a variety of roles, including Principal, K-12 Director of Curriculum, Instruction, & Assessment, Assistant Superintendent, and Superintendent in rural and suburban schools in Minnesota.  She earned her Bachelor’s degree from Montana State University, a Master’s degree from Bemidji State University, and a Doctorate from the University of North Dakota.  She retired in 2017.  


An Educated and Engaged Citizenry:  The Foundation of A Democracy

By Dr. Nancy Allen-Mastro


In the wake of the 2018 midterm elections, it’s hard not to wonder what students took away from the barrage of political ads that flooded the streets and airwaves. In today’s political climate, facts seem to be less clear. What is truth, and what is rhetoric?

Without an understanding of the issues and being well-informed, it is easy to be fooled by messaging that seeks to manipulate voters. How do we equip students with the skills to be critical consumers of political ads? More importantly, how do we ensure they are ready to fulfill their civic roles and responsibilities as members of a democratic society?      

Over 47 percent of America’s voting population turned out for the November 2018 elections.  That’s the highest percentage since 1966 when 49 percent voted.¹ This is good.  However, this surge in voters comes at a time when civic knowledge is at an all-time low. For example, in a 2015 survey published by The Annenberg Public Policy Center, only 31 percent of Americans could name the three branches of government.² Americans’ belief in democracy is also in decline.  In a 2016 Washington Post survey, 40 percent of Americans said they have lost faith in American democracy.³ The same survey showed a declining trust in America’s institutions (e.g., the media, organized religion, public schools, banks, unions, and big business), and only nine percent of those surveyed expressed solid confidence in Congress.

We pretend to hate politics, but politics are us. Thomas Jefferson is oft quoted as having said, “An educated citizenry is a vital requisite for our survival as a free people.” While there is no evidence he actually said or wrote this exactly as stated, there is widespread agreement it captures the spirit and intent of many of his writings. He was right. The fight for American independence was hard fought and won, but that was only the beginning. What followed has been much more difficult to achieve. Democracy is demanding. It’s messy, and it requires endless care and attention, precisely because of what it is – a representative form of government.  

In the age of social media, satellite radio, and 24-hour cable channels that increasingly promote narrow party agendas, voters can tune in to what they want to hear. Facts seem to be of little significance. As much as we’d like to think people make rational decisions when choosing who to vote for, they are far more likely to vote based on ideology, which is driven by emotion.⁴  

So what’s a voter to do?

No matter what ideology they may choose as they mature, we need to help students understand the complexities of government and how public policy impacts their daily lives. We need to teach them the importance of seeking empirical data to support their conclusions, and we need to show them how to distinguish fact from rhetoric. Doing so will prepare them for real civic engagement, the kind that goes below the surface and beyond party lines.

The educational journey begins with a solid foundation in what we think of as the social studies – civics, history, economics, geography, sociology, and psychology…the list doesn’t end there. The study of people and how they interact are timeless subjects, and they belong in the school curriculum. In fact, as topics, they transcend categorization and are multi-disciplinary in scope. When brought to life by an excellent teacher in any subject, students learn much about human nature and the world around them, past and present. In this way, we prepare them to construct their future.

A second and equally important way to prepare students to become members of the kind of enlightened citizenry America’s founders imagined is to enable them to experience democracy in action, even at a young age. After all, lessons lived become the finest lessons learned.

It is not uncommon for students to take part in different democratic governance structures, which are a vital part of the overall school experience. Student councils, student advisories, and participation in various clubs and activities (including officer positions) offer ways for students to experience real-world roles and responsibilities that are personally meaningful to them. It involves a stake. They invest themselves because the outcomes matter. As a result, they develop insight into themselves and others, as well as important leadership skills they will carry with them for a lifetime. In fact, students will tell you these were their most formative experiences in school, especially when they were given real decision-making authority.  

As a school administrator, the maturity and wisdom students demonstrated when performing their duties in these and other types of democratic structures awed me. Often they acted with more grace and dignity than adults, and certainly more than headlines would lead us to believe Congress and other legislative bodies act, where bickering and partisanship seem to have become the norm. Students’ sensibilities regarding fairness, justice, and inclusivity serve as models for us all.

Simulations are also effective, whether students take part in classroom, regional, or national and international formats. To prepare for citizenship, few examples compare to Model United Nations (MUN), a program of the United Nations Foundation. Though conducted under the format of a global community, the skills and abilities students attain through their involvement translate well into civic engagement at the local, state, and national/international levels, both political and non-political.   

Model United Nations is an authentic simulation of the UN General Assembly, UN Security Council, or other multilateral body, which introduces students to the world of diplomacy, negotiation, and decision making.”⁵ In this simulation-based educational program, students from all races, ethnicities, religions, political affiliations, and economic backgrounds come together to learn how governments work.  

Students fulfill the role of ambassador for the country they represent. As ambassadors, they tackle the same tough issues world leaders face. The simulation format provides them with a safe, structured way to delve into difficult, and potentially highly charged, matters.  

After conducting research, students prepare and present their positions in a mock assembly. By design, participation connects people who hold alternate, even opposing, views and interests. But as they pursue a meaningful resolution, ambassadors build shared understanding and mutual respect. By gaining new knowledge and exposure to different perspectives and the reasons behind them, students’ perceptions of others, the issues of our time, and the world evolve.

I spoke with Rhonda Fox, a long-time advocate for Model UN and Youth in Government, sponsored in the Twin Cities by the YMCA.  She has served as a coach for middle and high school students from the West St. Paul-Mendota Heights-Eagan School District for 18 years.  When I asked her why Model UN, she said she believes in connecting people to the world.  Her goal is to promote understanding among cultures and build bridges between different people.  “I love seeing how kids learn about each other and other countries. Model UN makes it real for them.  They see their commonalities and their differences.”

Model UN was a natural for Fox, who also runs her own travel business and formerly worked as a director for a sister city organization in Portland, Oregon before moving to the Twin Cities. She saw an article about Model UN in the newspaper. She and her daughter were interested and took part in an assembly tour to find out more. From there Fox volunteered as a parent and started a club in the district. The program was soon underway.

During her tenure coaching Model UN, Fox has seen a few changes in students.  “At first, students joined because they were mostly interested in other cultures,” she said. There is a cost to participate, so the program tended to draw students from families who traveled or were likely to have the means to travel. “Today it appeals to a broader range of students, not just privileged students.” In the middle and high schools in her district, scholarships are available, which has significantly opened access to all students regardless of income.       

Fox also observes that today’s students are more curious about global issues. “They are more aware of their world and more aware of diversity.” The Internet has brought the world closer to them, and the United States itself is becoming more diverse. She sees both impacting students.

The benefit to students cannot be understated, Fox insisted. “They become leaders.  The program cultivates skills like research, problem-solving, collaboration, and negotiation.” Their communication skills also flourish. Writing, public speaking, and debate are key features of the experience. Through their involvement, students become more self-directed and their self-confidence grows.

When I asked what difference a program like Model UN can make in preparing students to be citizens in a democracy, Fox was unequivocal. “Students see themselves being civically engaged.  They see the process [of government] and learn how they can fit in, how they can make changes.  Institutions and political processes don’t scare them. In fact, they feel empowered to make a personal impact on big issues.” The Model UN experience need not stop at high school. The program extends into college for students who want to continue their involvement, and many do.

Last spring, high school students organized a 17-minute nationwide walkout protesting gun violence; a student-led rally at the Capitol in Washington, DC followed a week later. What a terrific display of the freedoms they enjoy as citizens of a democracy. These were students who knew how they system works and how to make their voice heard.

In light of evolving attitudes towards democracy and the institutions that make a democracy work, and at a time when Americans are more divided than they are united, it is imperative schools foster a wide range of opportunities for students to take part in democratic forms of governance. Whether in the classroom or through a co-curricular activity, we can be sure students are building their personal foundation for future civic engagement in their state and community, as well as the country at large.  

What is your school doing to ensure students experience democracy in action? Can you do more?



¹ Domonoske, C.  (2018, November 8).  A boatload of ballots: midterm voter turnout hit 50-year high.  Retrieved from

² Kahlenburg, R.D. & Janey, C. (2016). Putting democracy back into public education.  Washington, DC:  The Century Foundation.  Retrieved from

³ Persily, N. & Cohen, J. (2016, October 14).  Americans are losing faith in democracy – and each other.  The Washington Post.  Retrieved from–and-in-each-other/2016/10/14/b35234ea-90c6-11e6-9c52-0b10449e33c4_story.html?utm_term=.187606ec82f7

⁴ Winter, E.  (2015, May). Voting is Irrational.  Emotions Always Win.  The Guardian.  Retrieved from

⁵ Bridging the Education Gap and Creating Global Citizens.