There were things about the 1950s that I'm glad are far behind us. Certainly the limited-identities allowed to women. And even though the rights of women have come a long way on all fronts in this country, still there are equality and access issues. [Some of the issues this election season were appalling.] And in spite of the fact that since the start of the 20th century over 60 countries have had a female president or prime minister elected — the United States has not. We certainly aren't leading the world in that arena.
But during the fifties and sixties it felt that people were more connected with the political. That it was a more informed citizenry in those days. Families sat in front of the same television watching the news. Parents discussed issues at the kitchen table while the kids listened and ate. On holidays the grown-ups argued about politics over cocktails, dinner, and dessert. And that conversation was continued in school.
Not so much that way any more, I think it's fair to say.
My friend Maria recently wrote about her earliest memory of a presidential race in 1964, walking to school and kids chanting "I'm for Johnson!" (she) or "I'm for Goldwater!" I will date myself by saying MY first presidential race was the one between Kennedy and Nixon. It was fourth grade and we had to choose a side. I chose Nixon. Because he was the underdog and I felt sorry for him. He seemed to be trumped at every turn by the young, good-looking, exciting Jack Kennedy. When I was watching that televised debate, sitting cross-legged on the floor, inching ever closer to that black-and-white screen ("Move back you're going to ruin your eyes!" was the constant parental cry) I was worrying because Nixon looked awful! He was sweating so much I thought he might have a heart attack. Even then I was worrying. [But don't you worry, later on I got over Nixon.]
When I was growing up, elections were a part of everyday life. Nowadays, I doubt that elementary school students are asked or encouraged to get involved in political campaigns because it's not politically correct— there's irony in that phrase. We've gotten so correct that we've sanitized civic engagement in the political process right out of the curriculum. As Maria's teacher told the class in 1974 while he had them watching the Watergate hearings on TV, "This is more important than anything I could teach you."
If we want young people to exercise the hard-fought right to vote and be participatory in this democracy, then we've got to be educating them all along the way — at home and at school.