Clay Morgan

What I’ve Learned About Teen Interest in US Government

For two years, I’ve taught U.S. Government and Civics at the high school level, mostly to seniors. Additionally, I taught a Government English Language Learners class, mostly to high school students who knew little English and had been in the States for only a few months.

I’ve learned a few things about these youngsters, their knowledge of government and politics, and their level of engagement.

Keep in mind this is a combination of what I’ve observed in my classes and is to a degree anecdotal.

Politics are national

The saying is that all politics is local, but my students seem to view politics as a national affair. President Trump is not very popular among the students and they seem to know everything he says and does. A lot of conversations with my students start with the words, “Hey Mr. Morgan did you see where Trump did/said ….”

When it comes to local, things are very different. They can’t identify a U.S. Senator from Tennessee who is retiring (Bob Corker). They don’t know Governor Haslam is term limited and not seeking reelection. They did not know where funding for the school they attend comes from.

From a very local level, the students seemed to be aware of three issues/discussions:

  1. A law passed by the Metro Nashville council decrminalizing the possession of small amounts of marijuana.
  2. The affair between Nashville Mayor Megan Barry and her bodyguard, which ultimately led to her resignation.
  3. The Transit Referendum.

Don’t expect them to vote locally

Recently, Nashville held a transit tax referendum. Put to the voters, it included a long-term sales tax increase designed to help pay for a proposed transit system that included, among other things, light rail.

There was a huge debate (ultimately, the referendum failed) in Nashville, and we used it in class as a lab of sorts to teach the students about referendums, various taxing strategies, federal grants, and how government spends money.

The students were well versed in the debate. They knew what was going on and they knew the different arguments for and against.

A few of my seniors are 18 and are registered to vote.

How many of my students registered to vote actually voted in the referendum? Not one. The frustrating thing is there isn’t really a good reason why they didn’t vote. One kind of snickered when I asked and admitted that with early voting, he can’t say he didn’t have time. “I just didn’t,” he admitted.

On May 24, Nashville will elect a new mayor. Right now, the class voter trends appear to be holding.

They are understanding of decisions that limit them

We spent a significant amount of time studying Landmark Supreme Court cases, including a number that impact their lives as students at school.

They don’t like the fact that the Supreme Court has given them a lower expectation of privacy and that the school can search their cars, backpacks, lockers, etc., at any time with or without cause.

But surprisingly, my government students were able to make fairly reasoned and eloquent arguments against their own rights to privacy and search & seizure while on campus.


This was an odd one. By and large, my students weren’t suddenly worried about their safety after the Parkand High School shootings. They were certainly interested in what the school was doing to enhance or ensure safety, but they were not living in fear.

Furthermore on the day of the national student walk out, most but not all, students did walk out. However, as most made clear to me, they were not walking out to protest guns, but rather to pay respects to the students who died in the shooting.

While the students did not express opposition to guns in general, they are decidedly against the idea of teachers carrying guns.

As one student said to me, “Would YOU trust most of the teachers here with a gun?”

Their concerns are not ours

Interestingly enough they aren’t concerned about the US withdrawing from the Iran deal, or President Trump’s alleged affairs, or even who the next mayor of Nashville is going to be. A few were worried about North Korea for a bit, but it was more the worry something would happen and they’d get drafted.

Rather, they are concerned about things very close to them.

  1. A number of their friends and classmates are undocumented, so they’re very concerned about DACA and what will happen to young immigrants, whether they are legal or illegal.
  2. The relationship between the police and the black community is a huge concern.
  3. How will college be paid for and will there be a job for them when they get out of college?

Plus, they are more interested in celebrity, fashion, and those sorts of things. They may not know what Sen. Marco Rubio said about the tax reform package (if they know there was a tax reform package), but they sure know who wore what at the Met Gala and every single fan theory about the ending of Avengers: Infinity War.

They aren’t sure their views matter

One of my students – a really bright guy – commented that no matter what young people do, nothing really changes.

From his perspective, young people can rally crowds, lead movements, and demand change, but the politicians don’t listen to them. Oddly enough, he said, a highly engaged demographic capable of mobilizing online and in person can’t get anything done.

They feel their views aren’t important. And they can’t quite connect that back to their voting record.

Still, graduation

The high school seniors I teach (most of them anyway) will graduate in a few days.

While there is plenty to be concerned about I have a lot of confidence in them as they go into the world. And the reason is simple.

  • I see a lot of immigrant children – documented and undocumented working very hard.
  • I see a lot of students with college plans but many others with plans to go into business for themselves.
  • I am impressed by the number of my students have decided to enlist in the military as well as the number already considering to serve as a career.

They have a lot of confidence and high expectations for themselves. They do believe in a better America, a better life for themselves, and that this country gives them the opportunity to build that life. Their challenge will be to find the path that will allow them to grab hold of that better future.

What I’ve Learned About Teen Interest in US Government

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