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February 13, 2004

the commons and youth development

I'm writing a paper (for a conference organized by Lin Ostrom) that connects my two main preoccupations: the Internet as a commons, and youth civic development. Actually, I believe this link is very important. A "commons" is a public asset. It requires voluntary contributions, and it can be ruined by pollution or exploitation. Therefore, it depends on people who display trust, reciprocity, long time-horizons, optimism about the possibilities of voluntary collective action, and personal commitment. People have to be raised this way; they aren't born "civic" (i.e., with a deep feeling of belonging and responsibility for some common good).

Lots of evidence shows that people develop durable attitudes toward the public sphere during adolescence. They either come to see themselves as efficacious, obligated, critical members of a community, or they do not. Their identity, once formed in adolescence, is hard to shake. This theory derives from Karl Mannheim, but it has considerable recent empirical support. In the 1920s, Mannheim argued that we are forced to develop a stance toward the public world of news, issues, and governments when we first encounter these things, usually in our teens. Our stance can be one of contempt or neglect, or it can be some kind of engagement, whether critical or conservative. Most of us never have a compelling reason to reassess this stance, so it remains in place throughout adulthood. That is why generations have enduring political and social characters, formed in their early years.

Unfortunately, there is reason to suspect that young Americans are less likely to develop civic identities and values today than in the past. For instance, most of the decline in social trust since 1970 is a result of young Americans becoming highly distrustful of fellow citizens. This is bad news for any effort to develop a commons--whether a small-scale resource like a community garden or a vast social form like the Internet. There are (of course) some young people with habits and norms that are friendly to the commons, but not nearly enough.

On the bright side, we know how to develop civic identities. Adolescents need to feel that they are assets, rather than potential problems; that they matter to a group. It also helps to have direct experience with civic or public work. This is the impetus behind much service-learning. It is also what we are trying to accomplish at Maryland by helping young people to create free public goods for display on a community website.

February 13, 2004 5:44 PM | category: Internet and public issues | Comments


Do you have a link or more information for the conference for which you are writing the paper?


February 14, 2004 4:37 PM | Comments (2) | posted by Frederick Emrich


I don't know of anything that's online or otherwise public, but I'll post a link as soon as I know of one. Thanks a lot for your comments on commons blog. I agree with your statement of my position, and I'll be interested if your readers react to it.


February 14, 2004 5:00 PM | Comments (2) | posted by Peter Levine

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