Jere Brophy and Janet Alleman
We have been interviewing K-3 students about topics addressed in the social studies curriculum, to develop information about the knowledge and thinking (including misconceptions) that they may bring to lessons on these topics. One of these interviews focused on government and subsumed questions about the president, including a question about whether the child would like to be president when he or she grows up.
The students attended the public schools of a middle/working class bedroom suburb of a city (population about 160,000) in Michigan. Ninety-six students were interviewed individually, stratified by grade level (24 at each of Grades K-3), gender (half boys, half girls), and achievement level (one-third higher achievers, one- third average achievers, and one-third lower achievers). Interviews were tape recorded and transcribed. The transcripts were analyzed to identify commonly-occurring ideas, but unique comments were preserved as well.
Previous findings about the development of childrens knowledge of government and political leaders indicate that children generally project images of a benevolent society in which dedicated and competent people working for the government provide individuals and families with things that they need, as well as address problems that face the nation as a whole. Children are much more aware of the administrative than the legislative or judicial branches of government, and they tend to view presidents as godlike figures notable for their power to get things done and their benevolence and caring about everyones needs. Many believe that people with problems can contact the president to request his assistance, and that he will respond by solving their problems personally or assigning someone else to do so.
Lacking knowledge about hierarchical levels in government and the specific functions performed at each level, children tend to focus on the president as the key law- and decision-maker, assisted by governors, judges, and other helpers. At first their images of political leadership tend to be limited to symbol recognition (the president signs papers, makes speeches, or has meetings). Later images are better connected to governmental processes or functions, but still very general (the president makes laws, runs the country, or solves problems). There is little or no awareness of specific functions, of the division of labor between the president and other office holders, of the roles of political parties or lobbies, or of the role of taxes in funding governmental activities.1
The students responses to our government interviews replicated and extended these previous findings.2 In this article, we focus on the students ideas about the president that informed their (mostly negative) responses to a question about whether they would like to be president when they grew up.
Our interview included questions about who is head of the government, how he got to be the president, and whether anyone or only certain people can become president. Most second and third graders knew that the president is the head of the government, could name the president at that time (Bill Clinton), and knew that he was president because he won an election. The younger students tended to be vague or incorrect about who headed the government (often confusing the president with the governor of the state), and they were more likely to talk about virtues (honest, hard working, good speaker, etc.) than about elections when explaining how one gets to be the president.
Although more than half of the students did not realize that presidents are elected, none thought that the title was hereditary. Instead, they assumed that the new president would be chosen by the former president or by a group of governmental leaders, typically on the basis of competence or other evidence of merit displayed in prior government service. Thus, even young children who did not understand much about our form of government already had learned that our country is neither a monarchy nor a totalitarian state, and had been conditioned to view it as a meritocracy.
Almost half of the students understood that there is an age qualification for running for president. Otherwise, only third graders were likely to suggest factors that might disqualify a person from the office. Some of these ideas were accurate (criminality, prior terms in office). Others were technically inaccurate but understandable given the identities of the presidents to date (no women or poor people).
When asked to compare presidents with kings or queens, most of these American students focused on what they knew about kings or queens rather than on comparisons with presidents. Their responses reflected images of kings and queens drawn from childrens literature and videos (live in castles or palaces, wear crowns and royal robes, live lives of luxury, etc.). A few responses reflected exposure to disputes over taxes between King George III and the American colonists, and a few others expressed beliefs that queens must be beautiful or that kings and queens existed only in the past.
Ideas about how people become kings or queens focused on inheriting the throne, qualifying by being very rich or owning a castle, or capturing the throne through force or guile. Those who talked about kings or queens exercising power or leadership did not describe them as benevolent in the ways that they typically described presidents. The minority of students who drew direct comparisons typically depicted kings and queens as basking in the trappings of inherited luxury, while depicting presidents as working long hours for the good of the country during their limited time in office. One second graders response incorporates several of these themes (Sidebar A).
Other questions asked where the president lives and works and what he does. About half of the kindergarten and first grade students and most of the second and third grade students were able to say that Bill Clinton lived in the White House and that the White House was located in Washington, DC. Younger students responses to the question about what the president does tended to focus on general virtuous behavior (doing good, helping people, etc.), without specific examples. When younger students did give examples, they often were unrealistic, depicting the president as personally stopping riots, cleaning the environment, or engaging in the activities of police officers, doctors, or judges (send people to jail, set broken bones, catch people who dont pay their taxes, etc.).
Older students were more likely to describe the presidents activities as office work or solving problems, and their examples tended to be more realistic (making executive decisions, appointing judges, etc.). Some imagined the president as mostly signing papers and doing office work, others as mostly carrying out daunting responsibilities requiring decisions about important problems, and still others as mostly traveling around the country providing speeches, photo opportunities, and autographs. (Sidebar B).
At the end of the interview, we asked the students whether they would like to be president when they grew up. Even though most of them had projected benevolent, powerful images of presidents, a majority (56) said that they would not want to be president when they grew up, 18 were undecided, and only 22 said yes. These responses were discouraging (one would hope that more young students might pleasantly imagine themselves as leaders of the country), but not surprising, given the findings of other recent studies.
In 1999, in an ABC News poll, 62 percent of 17-year-old American students indicated that they believed that they or their child could become president someday, but only 17 percent said that they would want this to happen. In comparison, fewer adults (53 percent) thought that their child could become president, but 30 percent would want it to happen. The latter figure was down from 35 percent in a 1992 poll, which in turn was down from 41 percent in a 1988 poll. The authors speculated that the tribulations of president Clinton during the year before the 1999 poll hadnt made the job look like a whole lot of fun3 Similarly, an exit poll conducted on election day of 2000 indicated that only 31 percent of voters questioned said that they would want one of their children to become president.4
Follow-up probes to our last question asked students why they would or would not want to be president (or for the undecided, what are some good things or not-so-good things about being president). Most of the 45 positive responses focused on the perquisites that come with the office (live in the White House, have a bowling alley or swimming pool in the house, get free cars, enjoy fame, popularity, travel, etc.). Most of the rest focused on the power to issue orders and make things happen. However, only 12 students mentioned using this power to do good for the country by making things more fair, helping the needy, etc. The others spoke of using the power to satisfy personal desires (send aides for coffee, make new laws reducing school to three days a week or mandating the production of more toys, etc.).
The 53 negative responses emphasized having to work long and hard, with little time for recreation or your family; having to do a lot of work that is not enjoyable because it involves going to meetings and writing a lot; or facing daunting responsibilities that would induce anxiety or guilt if one failed to carry them out successfully (I dont know if Im smart enough to do that, You have to know what to say when you speak into the microphone, I might be a bad presidentlike if they said they want some income and I dont know what to do, Its a big responsibility and I wouldnt want to mess it up, If you messed up on something, it would mess up the whole country.) Several of these themes appear in the responses from a second grader (Sidebar C).
Some students added troubling remarks: If you become president you will need a lot of lawyers, you might be sent to jail for not following the rules, someone might try to kill you (mentioned by several students), you have to have guards that follow you around and watch you all the time, and you have to get into all that political stuff. In regard to the latter response, only about 10 percent of the students were able to say anything substantive about the Democratic or Republican parties, but two of these students depicted Democrats as criminalsbad people prone to steal and kil#148; or shoot somebody and lie about it. Also, several students voiced denunciation of president Clinton (people shouldnt have voted for him because he told all those lies; he had done many bad things this year, like selling a recipe for nuclear bombs to China, so they could start bombing anytime; he has been greedy and not taken good care of his family.). These responses are worrisome because they suggest that the polarized political dialogue of recent decades has filtered down to children in highly emotional and counterproductive forms.
In conclusion, we find it disturbing that only 23 percent of the students said that they would like to be president when they grew up, and that many of these students were more focused on perquisites than on opportunities to use the power of the office for the good of the country. Furthermore, even though most of these students attributed near-omnipotent power to the presidency, more of them associated the office with long hours, daunting responsibilities, and boring work than with exciting opportunities to serve the nation and make things happen.
We think that the nation in general, the schools in particular, and the social studies curriculum most especially, need to do a better job of emphasizing the common good, helping students to appreciate the many functions and services that governments perform, and socializing students to aspire to public service careers.
1. Anna Berti, and Cristina Benesso, The Concept of Nation-State in Italian Elementary School Children: Spontaneous Concepts and Effects of Teaching, Genetic, Social, and General Psychology Monographs 124 (1998): 185-209; Fred Greenstein, Children and Politics. Rev. ed. (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1969); Robert Hess and Judith Torney, The Development of Political Attitudes in Children (Chicago, IL: Aldine, 1967); Stanley Moore, James Lare, and Kenneth Wagner, The Childs Political World: A Longitudinal Perspective (New York: Praeger, 1985).
2. Jere Brophy and Janet Alleman, Primary-grade Students Knowledge and Thinking about Government as a Cultural Universa#148; (222-page technical report). ERIC Document Preparation Service (in press).
3. Gary Langer, ABC News for Kids poll: Presidents Day, 1999. www.icrsurvey.com/icr/president.htm.
4. Voter News Service. Exit Poll Results-Election 2000. www.udel.edu/poscir/road/course/exitpollsindex.
Jere Brophy and Janet Alleman are professors in the Department of Teacher Education at Michigan State University in East Lansing.
Second grade student: Well, kings and queens kind of get treated more royal and they live in something like the White House but its betterits a castle, and the president lives in the White House which is pretty big, but normally kings and queens live there forever, but presidents only live there for about six or five years.
Interviewer: You said the kings and queens live in the castles until they die and the presidents live in the White House for a short time. Why is that?
Student: Well, you know, I really dont know that one.
Interviewer You told me that kings and queens get treated more royally. Can you tell me more about what you mean by that?
Student: Well, what I mean by that is they have lots of servants and they have different food to be served and they might have bigger tables and their castle is like bigger and its made out of bricks and stuff.
Interviewer: Why do you think the kings and queens get treated differently from the president?
Student: Well, right now, the president isnt being very good, but normally the kings and queens arent good because they try to take over places, so they get treated more royally and they get filthy rich and they say, I want to take over the world. Like the king and queen of England wanted to take over America.
Interviewer: How do kings and queens get filthy rich?
Student: Well, I dont know. They probably do nothing.
Interviewer: You said that kings and queens want to take over the world. How do they do that?
Student: Well, they get their army up and they gain more people so they can like take over every state, country, continent.
Interviewer: How does a person become president?
Student: By getting elected and giving a good speech.
Interviewer: So how do people become kings or queens?
Student: Probably because one of their parents or grandparents were rich and they passed down their richness and they used some of their richness to build the castle, and then they had servants.
Interviewer: So anyone who has lots and lots of money is a king or a queen?
Student: No, not everybody because some people can be richer than others.
Student: The president has a big house, and he works in it. (Interviewer: Does that house have a name?) I dont know. (What else does he do?) He works on important papers. (What are some of the things that the United States government does?) He does what he needs to do for his country.
First grade interview
Student: In . . . New York. (In New York OK. And what does he do?) He . . . tries to think of stuff thats good and so people dont get mad and stuff. (What else does he do?) Have rules that some people dont like. (What are some of the things that the United States government does?) Makes people vote . . . and he makes some people not vote because they didnt do anything wrong and some people have to say whats right, and the person doesnt sometimes, so they have to tell the truth. And the person says that theyre not telling the truth and . . . it kinda gets into a big fight and stuff.
Second grade interview
Student: In Washington, DC at the White House. (What does he do exactly?) He sort of makes rules and goes places to help people and makes speeches to help our country. (What are some things that the United States government does?) Makes laws . . . like if youre going to another country, you need to pay some money and maybe if youre going to a foreign land, you have to have a passport.
Third grade interview
Student: The president lives in Washington, DC, and he works at the White House. (What does he do?) He basically talks to the governors about certain thingstalks to the government people, and so he tries to deal with problems like if someone plans an attack against them, hed talk to the governor and see what . . . and then theyd talk to the government of people and that government would call up like all of the Air Force bases and see what they could use against whos ever bringing up the war. Basically, what hes doing is he solves the problems that are caused by other states or problems in his own state. (What are some of the things that the United States government does?) They probably call up certain places to solve the problems that need to be solved, and if theres this really, really hard-to-catch killer on the loose, then theyd probably call in a couple of army mentheyd call up the nation of armies and theyd say, I want about 50 people going here and there and surround this person, and they just keep scooching in and get him.
Second grade student: NoI wouldnt want to get into all that presidential stuff. I wouldnt like to be a Democrat or a Republicanany of those parties. I just want to be a normal worker when I grow up. I dont want to be president.
Interviewer: Can you think of what would make the job of president difficult?
Second grade student: Well, like youre in charge of the country and you have to do a lot of work. Somebody would think that you just lay back and sit down and watch TV or something, but you cant. You have to run the country, and its hard.
Interviewer: What would be interesting or good about being president?
Second grade student: Well, when you have time off, youre going to do very fun things.
Interviewer: Like what?
Second grade student: Well, if I ever wanted to be president, I would think of having fun as using video games, but that would be using taxes for something that you dont need, but if you used your own money, then it would be fine.
Interviewer: You told me you wouldnt want to be a Republican or a Democrat or one of those parties. Why not?
Second grade student: I wouldnt want to get into all that political stuff. Political stuff is like . . . I dont know what political stuff is, but I wouldnt want to get into it.