This Outlook article on young people's knowledge of American history and government incorrectly said a survey of U.S. high school students had missed almost half the questions on a civic literacy test. The students were in college.
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Hey, Young Americans, Here's a Text for You
In the 1990s and the early years of this century, theories that globalization is the ultimate evil found their ascendancy on college campuses. Young people, informed by movements against sweatshops and the World Trade Organization, have come to see democracy as a mere cosmetic gloss on the rapacious monolith of global capitalism.
All of these legacies have left the young feeling depressed, cynical and powerless. And yet our democracy needs them more than ever now. Young people are always in the vanguard of any movement to sustain or advance liberty. Students led the charge for freedom in Prague and Mexico City in 1968, in Chile in 1973, in Beijing and throughout Eastern Europe in 1989.
Young people helped lead the way in the U.S. civil rights movement, white college students joining with African Americans to sign up voters in the Freedom Summer of 1964. The feminist movement was revived after half a century of dormancy by a cadre of young, idealistic and politically savvy women. Same for the antiwar movement: Abbie Hoffman, Rennie Davis and Tom Hayden of the Chicago Seven were ages 17 to 22 when they were charged with conspiracy and inciting to riot while protesting at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago.
When I ask young people today whether they've been taught that immense positive changes have come about because small groups of people engaged in democratic practices, many look at me with puzzlement. They need a crash course in democracy -- and a crash course in how easy it is to close down an open society if steps are taken such as those we see our government taking now.
Earlier this year, I helped co-found the American Freedom Campaign to call for a national democracy movement to restore the rule of law. In response, some citizens called a national strike this month on behalf of the Constitution. It was a shaky beginning -- people showed up with their flags and their petitions, but the groups were sparse and shy and out of practice. In New York's Union Square, the sound system failed to carry one new young freedom activist's reading of the Bill of Rights very far. And yet it didn't matter. "For the first time in a long time," said Barbara Martinez as the wind whipped her scarf, "I feel hopeful."
Naomi Wolf is the author of "The End of America: A Letter of Warning to a Young Patriot."