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May 7, 2007

strategy, scholarship, and passion

Three meetings in the last four days have reminded me of our wonderful human diversity, even though the participants spoke the same language, gathered in similar settings in two cities along our East Coast, and addressed similar topics.

On Thursday, I spoke to a group of human rights activists from the developing world. Their host was the State Department; the setting was a private room in a Washington restaurant of the old, steak-and-bourbon style. I talked about civil society and the kind of politics that begins with citizens, not with governments. Much more interesting than I were the visitors who formed my small audience. There were West African politicians who delivered relatively long and formal comments, standing up to address the room. One man from Nigeria laced his remarks with classical allusions. An Egyptian and a Lebanese, speaking separately, criticized American foreign policy, particularly our inconsistent support for democracy. They were polite but passionate and angry. Afterwards, they asked to have their pictures taken with me, joking that my career as a politician would now be doomed. (It wasn't going anywhere before then.) The Lebanese man complained that US funding agencies want more youth civic engagement in his country. He noted that every young Lebanese took to the streets in protest last summer. Youth engagement is not the problem; governments are.

On Friday and Saturday morning, I participated in a small academic conference on youth civic engagement. My colleagues were mostly psychologists. We sat around a seminar table in a slightly beat-up room high in a skyscraper that belongs to Fordham University. One of our characteristic ways of communicating was to respond favorably to the previous speaker's remarks, adding: "So-and-so from Harvard--or Indiana, or Loyola--has done work on that." Or: "There was a piece about that in ADS in the early nineties." Or: "MTF data show that trend." Because everyone was an empiricist, the norm was to ground claims in facts and statistics. Yet the participants shared strong, implicit moral commitments: to the dignity and value of political participation, the need for equality and justice, and the positive potential of young Americans. Therefore, much of the evidence came from evaluations of highly idealistic programs that were relatively small. The real message was how much young people could achieve if big institutions invested in them.

iThen, on Saturday evening, I joined the Newspaper Association of America (NAA) conference at Tavern on the Green in Central Park. This was a big institution with funds to invest. The participants were American media executives: prosperous, confident, good-humored and jocular. It was like an Ivy League alumni reunion, albeit with more women that you would see if the Princeton class of '65 reconvened. I was served an enormous piece of beef while speakers stood to roast one another.

The next day, as a trustee of the NAA's Foundation, I heard a presentation on youth. The speaker was a market researcher, and his objective was to help newspapers reach young consumers. This is a worthy goal, because we know that newspaper readers are much more active in politics and community affairs. Of course, the motives of the newspaper executives are pecuniary, but that is fine: they could achieve public benefits by investing in young readers

The presenter sounded like a motivational speaker. ("Folks, you're going to have to reach them where they are.") He had six main ideas about young Americans, and each one had its own, professionally designed logo that flashed on the screen. (For instance: "autono-ME" meant the strong desire of young consumers to customize their products.) These aspects of the presentation certainly put me off, but it was quite insightful and based on statistical evidence. It was also rather disturbing, since a picture emerged of young people who are tremendously skillful at finding entertainment that has little public or intellectual or spiritual value. My only doubt about the factual claims in the presentation concerned the future. Generations develop over time. The same people who wore dashikis and love beads in 1968 had been Eisenhower-era suburban kids in 1958. So there is always the possibility that today's teens will rebel or shift dramatically--especially if they encounter passionate arguments like those I heard on Thursday or excellent programs like those discussed on Friday and Saturday.

It's a facile conclusion, but I'll write it anyway. We must somehow combine the political commitment and groundedness of the State Department's visitors with the idealism and empirical rigor of the developmental psychologists and the economic muscle and realism of the media industry.

May 7, 2007 8:41 AM | category: none


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