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Joel BelzVoices Joel Belz

Surveying our future

Today’s teens appear frightfully ignorant of America’s founding principles

Surveying our future

(Krieg Barrie)

Next time you think things have gotten intolerably bad, and that the world is headed for hell in a handbasket, just think what things might be like if all decision-making were handed to today’s teenagers—the relatively young adults who a decade or two from now, whether you like it or not, will indeed be in the driver’s seat.

Two issues prompted me to worry along those lines.

The first was the persistent insistence of several major polls that American teenagers are quite ready—at least compared with their forebears—to use force to calm things down when freedom of speech seems to be getting out of hand.

The second came when I decided to do a reality check by heading out for one of my traditional Walmart polls. Should I really trust Gallup, Pew, Barna, and all the rest of these pollsters?

Except that this time, I would make it a point to steer clear of adults. And to enhance my chances of talking just to teenagers, I would simply skip Walmart this time and head for the nearest mall. That, my wife suggested, would almost automatically bring me face-to-face with the teenagers I wanted to query.

I couldn’t find a single teenager who had a clue where freedom of speech is declared to be the right of any American citizen.

Well, I found the teenagers, for sure. They still seem to love the mall. I was able to chat briefly with 35 of them. But no, I’m not ready to turn things over to them. At least not anytime soon. On this issue of freedom of speech, for example, I couldn’t find a single teenager who had a clue where freedom of speech is declared to be the right of any American citizen. “I’m not sure,” responded Tom, a lanky redhead who said he’s just starting his senior year in a local public high school. “Isn’t that something that comes with our being part of the United Nations?”

(One inalienable right almost all these teenagers seemed to think was automatic was the right not to have me include their last names. For a handful, that was almost a necessity, with family structures so fragmented that hyphenated family names were common but hard to nail down.)

How would their lives be different, I asked these young citizens, if what we call “freedom of the press” were to disappear from public life? “Does that mean,” suggested Holly, a rising junior, “that someone coming here from Mexico wouldn’t be able to print a newspaper here in Spanish?” Not everyone in her little group of friends agreed with her.

Second Amendment issues didn’t seem to matter much in my admittedly informal survey. When I used that terminology, not one of my respondents knew what I was talking about. When I suggested it had to do with citizens’ rights to own guns, disinterest ruled.

Intuition told me that to go back in hopes of discovering a thoughtful discussion about freedom of religion would be to draw a blank. Intuition was right. If these kids weren’t at least a tad religious to start with, it was unlikely that religious freedom would be terribly important to them. And frankly, no one in the whole bunch struck me as part of some church’s youth group out for the afternoon. “I know some people are prejudiced,” Amanda responded to my question about religious tolerance, “but as long as we don’t try to embarrass and convert other people, why should anyone be bothered?” Amanda didn’t strike me as someone hoping to spend next summer studying Supreme Court nuances.

My point, though, was never to see how many silly responses I might uncover. I wanted instead to get a fair sense of what kind of historical, analytical, and political tools these young people might be ready to apply to public affairs when the present generation of voters and policy-setters has disappeared over the horizon. And the sense I got, in my admittedly simplistic survey, was hardly encouraging.

But if today’s younger set isn’t ready for a halfway intelligent conversation about the Bill of Rights, what’s going to happen when we’re dealing with matters like nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles?