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March 7, 2005

youth civic engagement: an "institutional turn"

Maybe every generation in every democracy gives its elders reasons to worry about the future. Citizens are made, not born; each generation needs deliberate, critical guidance from the older ones.

Looking at recent trends in the US, we see particular problems, including: a steep decline in youth interest in public affairs (graph); low levels of knowledge; widespread skepticism that it is possible to make a positive difference; and a decline in youth turnout of about one third (pdf) until the uptick last November. (As a discrete act, voting can be over-emphasized; but it is a useful proxy for knowledge, connectedness, and commitment.)

I see two basic ways to interpret these trends and respond to them. One is to assume that there is something wrong with the pyschology of young people: their knowledge, skills, and values. These deficits may not be their fault; we can blame schools, the media, parents, and others. But the deficits are located inside young people's heads (so to speak). If that's the situation, then we should be interested in the efficiency of various "interventions"--civic education programs, community service opportunities, or voter-canvassing drives--to change young people's psychology while they are still in a formative stage of life.

The other "model" assumes that the problem is not inside youth's heads, but in major institutions that are not worthy of being engaged. For example, maybe kids don't read newspapers because newspapers aren't that great to read. Maybe they don't vote because the vast majority of elections are decided when the districts are drawn. Maybe they aren't interested in "public affairs" because public issues are not being framed in useful ways.

In this model, youth attitudes, knowledge, and skills are not simply "dependent variables" that should be raised as much as possible through interventions such as "civic ed." They are rather (or partly) symptoms of a need for deeper social change.

There may nevertheless be arguments in favor of programs that work directly on young people's minds and hearts. It is easier to change social studies than reform politics. Thus if we can enhance civic skills through better social-studies education, maybe we can help the next generation to press for political reform (on its own terms, not ours). Or if we can raise youth turnout through get-out-the-vote efforts, which seems to have happened in '04, then maybe we can create a more competitive and unpredictable electorate, thereby changing campaigns and politics. Nevertheless, working on kids' pyschology is an indirect strategy, and it's worth constantly asking two more basic questions: What kind of polity is worthy of full engagement? And how do we get there?

March 7, 2005 10:01 AM | category: none


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