The majority of Dalton State professor Ken Ellinger's political science students can't name Georgia's two U.S. senators.

"I think they've had a little bit of civics, and it is not very much," Dr. Ellinger said. "They don't show up very interested."

Even though Georgia's students begin learning about government in elementary school, their understanding of civics is lacking, educators and politicians agreed.

Dr. Ellinger said he tries to convey to his students that to be uninformed is to give up control of everything from tax dollars to freedoms guaranteed in the Constitution.

"Your ignorance of all things governmental and political is going to work to your detriment," he said. "It is not in your best interest to not have some savvy."

State Rep. Jay Neal, R-LaFayette, said that being uninformed leads to the dangerous assumption that government is always the solution. Many forget what they learned about the fundamentals of government, and they don't seek out new information, he said.

"Too many people go to the polls and vote, and they haven't learned anything about that candidate," he said.

Former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor is highlighting the need for better civics education.

In a recent television interview, she said three-fourths of people could identify American Idol judges, but only one-third know the three branches of government - executive, legislative and judicial. She launched a Web site to appeal to young people and spark their interest in how government works.

Ridgeland High School freshman Sarah Roberts said even though she didn't learn much in middle school civic classes, her ninth-grade class is eye-opening.

"People today don't know stuff they should about the government, but they want to put their opinion in anyway," she said.

Ridgeland High School government teacher Jason Alspaugh said the 2008 presidential election sparked more interest than usual among his students.

But today's culture distracts students from important issues, Dr. Ellinge said. He grew up in a era when the most interesting show on television was a newscast. He became interested in politics as a child at the dinner table with his parents.

"My parents talked about it," he said. "There was nothing else going on. You either listened to them or you were bored. These kids (today) hardly eat with their parents on a regular basis."

the solution

The key to increasing interest in civics is making it relevant to students.

Georgia's new performance standards, which for social studies have only been in place for a couple of years, are designed to give students a deeper understanding of government.

The new standards require students to start learning in elementary school how they are affected by government, which is a significant change, said Bill Cranshaw, social studies program manager for the Georgia Department of Education.

Memorizing every constitutional amendment is no longer the goal. Students can look that up online, he said.

Educators and politicians also said providing hands-on learning will interest students more. Justice O'Conner's Web site, called "Our Courts," will have video games for students to play online and learn about civics.

Rep. Neal said he often visits schools and hosts school groups at the Capitol so students can see government in action. He said he does everything he can to convey the practical importance of understanding government.

Ridgeland High School freshman Christy Summers, 15, said Mr. Alspaugh has imparted to her the importance of civics education.

"You need to know what your rights are and what you are able to do with them," she said.

But Dr. Ellinger said he is not as optimistic as he used to be. He is afraid that students today have lost the love of learning. Or maybe they never had it.

"How many of today's young people would find learning something new fun?" he said. "I used to be naive enough to think if somebody learns it one time it changes them forever. If I ever thought that, I don't think that anymore."