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September 09, 2005

why it's important for young people to have civic opportunities

James Youniss and Daniel Hart have summarized more than a dozen longitudinal studies that follow young people into adulthood and repeatedly ask questions about their civic engagement and values. The basic pattern is very consistent: those who participate in politics or community affairs or leadership roles at age 15 or 22 are much more likely to be involved at age 30 or 50. Probably the longest study is by Kent Jennings, which finds a relationship between participation in high school groups in the 1960s and participation in community groups by the same people in the 1990s.

One possible explanation is that some people have a personality trait, moral value, or other internal characteristic that predisposes them to participate when they are young and still applies when they are older. In that case, it would not matter much whether adolescents and young adults were given opportunities to participate civically. Assuming they had the right mental predispositions, they would participate whenever they had an opportunity, even if they had to wait for adulthood. Our goal, in that case, should be to change hearts and minds, to make people feel civically responsible.
If this theory applied, then we might also understand certain historical events as the result of shifts in values: for example, the Civil Rights Movement would be a product of new consciousness among African Americans (and to a lesser extent, among Whites). By the same token, we should be concerned about certain negative trends in values, like the big increase in materialistic values held by incoming college freshmen since 1966.

However, the evidence tends to suggest a very different view. Based on surveys of participants and non-participants, it does not appear that young people engage in service or politics because they have particular values beforehand. It seems to matter much more whether they are recruited to participate, and whether they have appropriate skills and knowledge. But if values do not determine participation, participation does change values and habits. When we compare participants who appeared similar before a civic opportunity, we often find that they behave quite different afterwards. This was true of comparable people who did and did not participate in the Freedom Summer campaigns of 1964. Such profoundly moving and terrifying work might be expected to leave a lasting mark (see Doug McAdam's book, Freedom Summer). But the same is true to a lesser extent of young people who participate in student government or school newspapers. Even forty years later, they remain more civically engaged than other people who answered the same survey questions as they did.

To be sure, participants in civic life could have some disposition or character trait that was not measured in the surveys given before they chose to engage civically. That unobserved disposition could be responsible for their civic participation. But it is much more straightforward to assume that most people will participate if they are given the opportunity. The range in their characters and values doesn’t matter much; the opportunity is more important. Once people begin to participate, they obtain skills to engage civically; they get satisfaction from doing so; they enter networks that inform them about other opportunities and cause them to be frequently recruited; and their identity begins to shift. They begin to see themselves as citizens or participants, not as isolated individuals.

I was directly involved in conducting focus groups of some 75 highly engaged students at the University of Maryland in December 2004. They tended to tell a story of recruitment that led to habits of participation. Several acknowledged that they began to serve in high school because of pressure from parents or to improve their college prospects; but they found they liked it. “I became addicted to service,” one student said. Another observed, “You tend to see the same pattern, where people who were active in high school are the same people who come to college and are active.” Many students explained that they had become involved in a first campus group or program almost by accident, but then they were recruited to join other groups and activities. They suspected that if they had missed the initial invitation, they never would have become campus leaders and engaged citizens. One student whose personal career had taken her from student government into peer counseling said, “Everything builds on itself.” Several students said that they had participated in groups, projects, and events because they were asked to do so. Personalized invitations from faculty, staff, or peers were much more effective than mass mailings and emails. As student leaders, participants in these focus groups also issued many invitations to peers. One said, “In the committees I run, I take people who have the qualities of leaders, and expose them, bring them along in meetings with the Administration.”

If this theory of recruitment followed by habit-formation applies widely, then the most important thing is to make sure that many people are recruited and encouraged to participate in meaningful ways. We should be less concerned about shifts in values as measured by opinion polls (although those might be symptomatic of changes in available opportunities). And we should be more optimistic that if we provide extracurricular groups, service projects, and other civic opportunities, young people will sign up and benefit lastingly.

Posted by peterlevine at September 9, 2005 12:21 PM


Woah. I only put it together after reading and thinking about your post -- I don't think i'd be engaged in service and other things if i didn't have opportunities thrown at me back in 9th grade. that's BIG. i'm going to continue thinking about that... this can be extrapolated to whole communities of active or relatively unexposed/inactive groups of people...

thanks for the words of hope about youth and civic engagement, correlated with facts and stats. i love that about this site.

Posted by: anjali [TypeKey Profile Page] at September 13, 2005 01:19 AM

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