How High School Student Councils Hurt Democracy

Despite their intent to educate youth about government, high school student councils train students to trivialize the entire democratic process.

I know that many of my readers are Type A personalities who valiantly served their country by holding office for an entire year as Sophomore Class Treasurer. I fall into that category myself. My problem isn’t the existence of high school student councils, it’s that schools generally half-ass them. When you create model governments without any power you trivialize democracy in the eyes of impressionable youths. Student councils should be given meaningful authority or scrapped entirely.

My high school had an active student council and several very dedicated teachers supporting it. As I recall, student council’s powers ranged from organizing pizza parties in the fall to deciding on a prom theme in the spring. Even then the most popular theme would be vetoed by sensible teachers, repeatedly, until we drummed the bottom of the list for tried-and-true motifs like “A Prom to Remember!” or “A Dance in the Stars!” (The key was spicing up lackluster themes with exclamation marks.) 

Maybe your student council did heavier lifting than ours did. It’s possible mine did as well. I have no no idea because ours convened at 7:00 in the morning, and even submarine commanders get to show up around 8:00. On general principle I only ever made an appearance at afternoon events, and I think I was vice president or something. 

The small and seemingly benign remit of student bodies has far reaching effects. The whole idea behind student council is to prepare future citizens to run the country by exposing them to democratic practice.

What lessons is it teaching them, then? That government is basically a popularity contest vested with the minor task of organizing fun events irrespective of actual responsibility. Because the really important decisions are quietly made by unelected people. Sound like any country you know?

Student councils with no actual powers damage civic awareness because they teach teenagers that democracy isn’t serious or capable of truly screwing stuff up. Kids need to know that.

If I were running a school I think I would say, “Democracy is sacred and I’m not entrusting any of you little monkeys with it until you turn in whoever made up that limerick about me.” If the kids quit “sexting” for a few days and promised to keep their switch blades at home, I would reward them with some decent power to wield.

I hope no children read my website. But kids are getting smarter these days and might be able to break through the filter anyhow. If you’re an impressionable high school student and not yet in prison, I suggest you pose the above argument to your school.

Your administrators will probably ignore you. But if they accept my premise they have one of two options: either they abolish student council on the grounds that it trivializes democracy, or they invest it with some actual power.

Very few school districts still have power over life and death outside of Alabama. So you don’t need to worry about President Skippy reenacting Lord of the Flies in the high school auditorium. A viable suggestion might be that the School Board must contain a student member with full voting rights. Or perhaps incorporating a student representative into the selection process for new faculty members.

Be creative. Maybe give the hall monitors crazy KGB perogatives. I’m fairly confident that as a seventeen-year-old with a sorry goatee I would have abused that sort of power to the hilt. Such may sound like a recipe for disaster, but it’s not. I guarantee you that children terrorized by the secret police of John Hinckley High will grow up to combat wire tapping legislation and know exactly how Miranda rights work.

Many student councils organize laudable fundraising efforts. These teach valuable lessons to youngsters, and anyone who has spent hours raising money for a worthwhile cause deserves due credit. However I don’t think you should call such activities student “government,” because the real government we’re trying to teach kids about doesn’t rely on voluntary contributions. If you don’t contribute it throws you in jail for tax evasion. (If student council could penalize layabouts, then it would be applicable.)

If a school abolishes their student government because they don’t actually trust their students, youngsters can still learn how basic majority rule works through clubs. During my senior year my school elected me president of our Future Business Leaders of America chapter. No one had any illusions that I was somehow mirroring government; they elected me on the premise that I would rake in pizza money. And rake in pizza money I did! I even used some of it to buy pizza.

Democracy without any power trivializes democracy. And power can be judged by its capacity to screw things up.

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 Andrew Heaton is a writer and standup comedian in New York City. If this post made you laugh or think, kindly "like" it on Facebook.

One comment

  • Teresa
    March 14, 2012 - 10:25 am | Permalink

    Vote for Heaton??! Why would I be stupid enough to vote for Hea— wait, did you say pizza…. VOTE FOR HEATON!!! WHOOOO!

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