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September 13, 2005

the effects of 9/11 on youth civic engagement

Over the weekend, both the New York Times and the Washington Post marked Sept. 11 with stories about a resurgence of civic engagement among American young people. The Post gave Harvard's Thomas Sander and Robert Putnam space to argue that "a renewed commitment to civic engagement among a crucial segment of the population"--young people--"has resulted from the "horrible event" of 9/11. For evidence, the authors relied on the latest HERI surveys of incoming college freshmen, which reveal big increases in volunteering, plus the turnout surge in the 2004 election. Meanwhile, the Times ran a news story by Alex Williams entitled "Realistic Idealists" that described some super-volunteers--like 13-year-old Hazel, who created a 3,000-volume library for a homeless shelter. Williams writes, "Hazel is at the leading edge of a generation whose sense of community involvement was born four years ago on Sept. 11, 2001. The attacks spurred an unprecedented outpouring of donations and volunteerism from Americans."

I never miss an opportunity to emphasize the idealism and civic creativity of today's young people. There are reasons, however, to doubt that 9/11 had a meaningful effect. At CIRCLE, we tend to explain the turnout increase as a result of feverish efforts to mobilize youth--although, to be sure, younger citizens were following current events more closely than usual in 2004, and one reason could be that 9/11 had caught their attention. Our own surveys found that adolescents were "all dressed up with nowhere to go" in 2002-4. That is, they expressed a heightened commitment to volunteering and other forms of participation, but they had no more than the usual opportunities.

Which brings me to the difference between Robert Putnam and Jim Youniss, some of whose views I mentioned here last week. For Putnam, values (such as trust, connectedness, and responsibility) underlie actions. For Youniss and colleagues, values tend to arise from participation, and what causes participation is (mainly) the opportunity to do something. If Youniss is right, then any effect of 9/11 on youth civic engagement would be indirect. Perhaps young leaders and adults responded to the attacks by creating venues for other young people to serve.

Another controversy is buried in the article by Sander and Putnam. Many people argue that 9/11 increased people's sense of connectedness (especially in New York City) but did little to enhance their capacity to solve public problems together. A national survey that CIRCLE released in 2002 found that many Americans of all ages volunteered, at least occasionally, but only 20 percent of the volunteers (and 10 percent of young volunteers) described their participation as a way to address a “social or political problem.” Putnam's own writing immediately after the 9/11 attacks was surprisingly apolitical; he seemed to be arguing that it would be good if people trusted one another more and cared more for others, but he said little about people's capacity for collective problem-solving. (I have written before about such apolitical notions of "social capital.)

Posted by peterlevine at September 13, 2005 07:17 AM


Also see Lawrence Kaplan's current New Republic cover story entitled "American Idle" about civic energy after 9/11. As a foreign affairs expert Kaplan suggests that President Bush's "shopping" advice and our war supposedly without sacrifices missed the opportunity for public engagement.

Posted by: Scott D [TypeKey Profile Page] at September 15, 2005 06:36 PM

Thomas Sander (who is Executive Director of the Saguaro Seminar: Civic Engagement in America at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government) asked me to post the following:

Peter, I noticed your blog reflections on our 9/10/05 Washington Post op-ed (“Sept. 11 as Civics Lesson”), but you make some fundamental misassumptions about our sources, so your conclusions may also be suspect. (We understand that in the severe word limits of an op-ed one can't fully explain the nature of each source so maybe this is were you were led astray.)

You say "For evidence, the authors relied on the latest HERI surveys of incoming college freshmen, which reveal big increases in volunteering, plus the turnout surge in the 2004 election." Both of those facts are true but that is not our evidentiary base. We relied primarily on the HERI data on frequency of discussing politics, as well as the MtF (Monitoring The Future High School Senior) data on interest in "government and current events" and "social issues." Those surveys are not about private volunteering, but about engagement in politics and public affairs. And we specifically noted that the rise in volunteering pre-dated 9/11. Moreoever, we
specifically did not talk about "social capital" in the op-ed, but about "civic engagement," because the effects of 9/11 are focused on politics and public affairs, not private connections.

We just wanted to set the record straight so readers are not misled about what the evidence is. Even after reading your blog, we fully stand by our conclusions as written in the Washington Post op-ed.

Posted by: Peter Levine [TypeKey Profile Page] at September 28, 2005 11:40 AM

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