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September 1, 2006

The Future of Democracy

I mailed off a book manuscript yesterday that's entitled The Future of Democracy: Developing the Next Generation of American Citizens. It was commissioned by University Press of New England, which will now have the fun of editing it. I wrote it within the last twelve months; chunks appeared on this blog when I believed they might be interesting as stand-alone essays. There is a chapter on each of these questions:

  • What is "civic engagement"?
  • Why should we want many people to be engaged?
  • Why does it matter if young people are engaged?
  • How are young people engaged today?
  • What are the barriers to civic education?
  • What works inside schools?
  • What works in community-based organizations?
  • What works in colleges and universities?
  • What broader political reforms do we need to make citizenship worthwhile and rewarding?
  • Throughout, I explore two basic theories. One assumes that there are problems with young people's civic skills, knowledge, confidence, and values. These problems are not the fault of young people. Hardly anyone would hold a sixteen-year-old personally accountable for lacking interest in the news or failing to join associations. If we should blame anyone, it would be parents, educators, politicians, reporters, and other adults. Nevertheless, the problems are located (so to speak) inside the heads of young people. We should therefore look for interventions that directly improve young people's civic abilities and attitudes. Such interventions include formal civic education, opportunities for community service, and broader educational reforms that are designed to improve the overall character of schools. The government, the press, and political parties can also enhance young people's civic commitments and skills by directly communicating with them.

    The second model assumes that there are flaws in our institutions that make it unreasonable to expect positive civic attitudes and active engagement. For example, citizens (young and old alike) may rightly shun voting when most elections have already been determined by the way district lines were drawn. They may rightly ignore the news when the quality of journalism, especially on television, is poor. And they may rightly disengage from high schools that are large, anonymous, and alienating. If this model holds, then we do not need interventions that change young people's minds. Civic education that teaches people to admire a flawed system is mere propaganda. Instead, we should reform major institutions.

    There are valid arguments in favor of both models, although they sometimes conflict in ways that I explore. In my view, we need a broad movement that improves civic education while it also reforms the institutions in which citizens engage. We must prepare citizens for politics, but also improve politics for citizens. Neither effort can succeed in isolation from the other. Educational curricula, textbooks, and programs, if disconnected from the goal of strengthening and improving democracy, can easily become means of accommodating young people to a flawed system. But political reform is impossible until we better prepare the next generation of citizens with appropriate knowledge, skills, habits, and values. Students should feel that they are being educated for citizenship, but also that they can help to renew American democracy.

    September 1, 2006 11:39 AM | category: none

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