This Teen Wrote the Literal Textbook on How to Get into Politics
A high school student thinks young people don't vote because no one tells them how—and he wants to change that.
photos courtesy of James Wellemeyer
Teens of America, how did you spend your summer? James Wellemeyer, a 17-year-old rising senior at New Jersey's Lawrenceville School, wrote a civics textbook. The Lisa Simpson-esque move was prompted by the purest of intentions: Wellemeyer thinks that kids his age aren't involved in politics enough, and that they could be inspired by a textbook that draws on the experiences and passions of people their age. So he talked to upwards of 60 young people from the ages of 14 to 22, and used their stories about how they got into activism and politics to anchor the book, an endeavor funded by a grant his boarding school gives annually to students who want to take on a summer project. (Wellemeyer says 100 students applied for it this year and only ten got it.)
He's pretty confident in the 150-page result. So much so that he's emailed about 100 schools around the country in a bid to get them to adopt the text (he says a few say they are "actively reviewing" it, though none have accepted it yet.) He also emailed me hoping I would spread the word. I was happy to talk to him—low voter turnout among young people is a perpetual concern, and maybe a teen who spent months talking to other kids about politics would have some insights about what could move young bodies to polling booths.
He chatted with me about that and other subjects, and asked that if any school is interested in taking a look at his textbook, they email him at email@example.com. Here's how our interview went:
VICE: What inspired this book?
James Wellemeyer: I saw reports on the news that said youth weren't politically informed and they didn't vote. A reason for that might be that young people had an uninteresting introduction to politics, maybe in a middle school civics course, that never really inspired them to get involved. The textbook focuses on the narratives of other young people. If it could be used in a classroom, then those narratives of young people will inspire the next generation to think about politics, to discuss politics early, and ultimately get involved and vote when they get older.
What's one narrative from a young person you featured?
One girl, Clara Nevins, actually went to the climate change conference in Paris back in 2015 as a delegate. She was the only delegate there of her age and she was inspired to write an op-ed about that saying there should have been more young people there because young people are the future and young people will be inheriting the planet, so they should have a seat at the table when discussing climate change. I think that narrative, for a lot of middle schoolers, could inspire them to get involved, because it'll show them that despite their age they can make political change.
What do you think other textbooks get wrong?
I've seen a lot of schools around me where the civics textbook focuses almost exclusively on the Constitution—they don't go over bias in news, or voting procedure, or how to register to vote. And they certainly don't cover youth narratives, or have interviews about young people who could inspire the next generation to take interest in politics.
I also saw a lot of schools were shutting down political discussion rather than encouraging it. At a school near me, they're not allowed to have a Young Democrats club or a Young Republicans club. I saw that as a problem. This book encourages political discussion because it talks about all these young people's political views, how they shaped those views, and it's going to get young people in these classrooms to talk about these narratives.
"At every middle and high school they should be teaching kids how to register and vote just like they're teaching health."
What do you think older people don't understand about the politics of young people?
I know the media talks about low voter rates [among young people], and that may be true—but some of the young people I talk to didn't vote until they were 20 because they didn't know how to register. But they still had many political ideas. One reason youth aren't voting is not because they're uninformed about politics, but because they've never been shown how to register to vote, then they miss the deadline.
How do you think we could get more young people involved?
Projects like this that show people at a young age that they can get involved, and that politics is something that's not just history but something that's very alive right now. The idea is to make it more accessible—show people young people can vote, young people can get involved. At every middle and high school they should be teaching kids how to register and vote just like they're teaching health.
What was the most surprising thing you learned from doing this?
I was surprised at how much young people have really thought about politics. One person who I interviewed started talking about the 17th Amendment, which established the direct election of senators. He disagreed with it because he thought senators would be better if they were picked by their state legislators because they'd be more qualified. That's something I never have thought of. I don't want to say I was surprised by how passionate everyone I talked to was about politics because I knew they were going to be very interested but people definitely had some really interesting perspectives.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
To learn more about the book, email James here .
Follow Harry Cheadle on Twitter .