I teach at Yale, where the undergraduate elite is the best part of the univer-
sity. These students are often more articulate, more con- versable and more interesting than most of the professors. Students are a big reason why I (and others) stay at Yale when we could easily leave and might love to. But—it al- most pains me to say—these superstars should not be al- lowed to vote. The law must change, and I can’t exclude my friends.
Age 21 has long been ac- cepted as the start of adult- hood. That’s where the Amer- ican voting age had been, in most states and elections, un- til the federal standard was lowered to 18 in 1971 by the 26th Amendment—mainly be- cause of the draft and the Vietnam War. Young men could be drafted and sent into battle but weren’t al- lowed to vote.
The emergency of Vietnam is long over—and adolescents today are dramatically unpre- pared to vote. At 21 they are still barely educated, because history and Western civiliza- tion are taught so badly at most of our schools and col- leges. At least 21-year-olds have had years of experience as almost-adults. Many have
Today’s adolescent voters aren’t allowed to drink and aren’t drafted to fight a war.
dealt with real employers, real romances, complex insti- tutions. And at least they are, mainly, far more mature than they were at 18. Follow any student from the start of freshman year to graduation: An enormous change takes place. Yet people refer to “col- lege students” as if they were,
developmentally, a homoge- neous blob.
What harm is there in a lower voting age? It’s hard to pin down the effects and the influence of our youngest vot- ers, who often don’t bother to vote anyway. Today’s 18-year- olds are worse-educated than teens in the 1960s. And in more cases than anyone would have believed a genera- tion ago, today’s elected offi- cials are grossly incompetent. Adolescent voters didn’t cause the problem but could hardly be helping. Today some elected officials can’t see why a city government should mind thuggish mobs destroying public monuments they don’t like, or stealing chunks of big cities and run- ning them as they please. The modern left has suggested abolishing law enforcement as we know it. Great idea—and let’s outlaw crime too, while we’re up..
The U.S. has been painfully slow to clean up the wreckage
of its 1960s cultural revolu- tion, which knocked every- thing to the ground and caused crazy cracks every- where. We have been living in this mess for half a century. Our schools and colleges are biased and teach poorly, but we don’t change them. Most of our cultural institutions, from movies and TV to news- papers, concert halls and mu- seums, are biased, but we don’t change them. Even our churches and synagogues are often politically warped, but are seldom changed. Voting at 18 is only a minor leftover of the Stupid Age, but a new constitutional amendment could fix it.
If politicians had pulled any such trick when I was 18, I would have been mad as hell. I hope today’s 18-year- olds will be too. They’ve had enough coddling. First grow up, then vote.
Mr. Gelernter is a professor of computer science at Yale.
Françoise Fielding, Esq., Apt 15H, 166 East 63rd St, New York, NY 10065. Cell: 415-310-6128