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October 10, 2006


(Athens, Georgia): I've been at numerous meetings lately. They all concern the civic engagement of young people, but they draw remarkably diverse participants.

At a meeting on digital media and youth civic engagement, 10 out of 11 people seated around a table in a hotel suite at Newark airport have their laptops open while we discuss papers. There's an official conference "back channel" on which you are free to email everyone present. People talk about "dumping the code" from documents into "wikispaces." There is a strong air of philosophical anarchism in the room: participants most admire authentic, unregulated youth expression. They also use the term "affordance," which I must look up on Wikipedia.

At a summit on youth leadership at the Holocaust Museum, a substantial proportion of the audience consists of pastors from rural African American churches that have been burned to the ground by racists. The pastors are diverse in terms of backgrounds, religious denominations, and politics, as I learn from speaking with them. But at the end, they rise in turn to speak in sonorous terms, with rhyming cadences. One denounces the use of "time outs" in discipline. If he'd been given time outs, he says, he'd have simply taken a break and then gone right back into mischief; and by now he'd be in the pen, not a pastor. Spare the rod, spoil the child.

At a downtown Washington Marriott for the annual meeting of the National Conference on Citizenship, Robert Byrd waves his crutches and invokes the Lord as he delivers a stemwinder of a speech in defense of the Constitution. Not long before him, the Attorney General had stood at the same podium and defended the administration's policies--of very dubious constitutionality--regarding habeas corpus. Public school kids from Philadelphia watch these luminaries via closed-circuit TV. I have no idea what they're thinking.

At the University of Georgia, we sit around a long seminar table watching PowerPoint slides with regression coefficients, learning about the effects of John Stewart on young Americans' political views as measured in surveys. Later, we file into the student union to watch old clips of educational TV shows. Two clips from 1965 stick in my mind. One shows a man sitting behind a desk, reading a long and intensely boring lecture about the law and how men make it to restrain other men's behavior. This is civic education that makes your skin crawl.

However, we also see footage of CBS's "Town Meeting of the World" from the same year. Students from Mexico City, London, Paris, and Belgrade ask uncensored questions of Dwight Eisenhower, Thurgood Marshall, and Arthur Goldberg--via satellite connection. The students dress like Frank Sinatra or Doris Day, but they ask incredibly informed and pointed questions. For example, if the United States supports democracy, why (asks a Mexican student) has it invaded Latin American countries 132 times? Eisenhower replies that we renounced intervention under FDR and would never do it again. The student counters with the case of the Dominican Republic, where US Marines had landed earlier the same year. Arthur Goldberg answers rather testily. It is a remarkably unscripted moment. We see more authentic "youth voice" than would ever be allowed on television today. But the same questions still need to be asked.

October 10, 2006 7:33 AM | category: none


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