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April 16, 2010

a critical review from the left

Alan Singer has written a strong and (in its own way) valid critical review of my recent book with Jim Youniss, Engaging Young People in Civic Life. Singer begins:

There is definitely some truth to this. I'm pretty pro-regime. I don't like a lot of current policies and leaders, but I think the system is valuable, fragile, and liable to get worse if we don't care for it. I don't presume by the way, that all my co-authors would share that position; some are more radical. It does seem to me that preserving a system counts as "civic engagement," so I can't accept Singer's claim that we're "not about civic engagement at all." We address several varieties of it, but we don't define it as left-radicalism.

A major goal of the book is to benefit young people by giving them positive roles in their communities. We summarize research showing that such opportunities lead to better lives for the young people who participate. Although I also defend their right to protest and criticize, contributing to their communities pays off for them best--and that is a valuable outcome.

Singer writes:

This is all true, but four caveats apply. First, the valuable outcomes of such participation were the social changes they achieved. For instance, young people played an important role in overturning Jim Crow in the American South, and that was a great achievement. But it didn't benefit them directly. Doug McAdam shows in Freedom Summer that the elite, predominantly white college student participants who went to Mississippi in 1964 were worse off than a comparison group in terms of their happiness, tangible welfare, and satisfaction in the 1980s. They paid a steep price for their activism. Their sacrifice was commendable, but our book is mostly about something else: helping disadvantaged young people to do better in life.

Second, the outcomes of youth political participation are not inevitably good. European fascism had a strong youth component. The American Civil Rights movement had distinguished elders. If you want to change the world for the better, the key questions are: What kind of change is desirable? And how can we get it? Whether and how youth should participate is a subsidiary issue.

Third, student activism was relatively rare even at the height of what we call "the sixties." In 1968, according to the HERI College Freshmen Survey, just 29.9% of first-year college students frequently talked about politics. This was during a year of assassinations, a momentous presidential election, the draft, riots, and war. In 1970, 3.1% of college freshmen considered their views "far left." Another 33.5% considered themselves liberals, leaving the majority as moderate, conservative, or unwilling to say.

Finally, imitating the radical movements of the 1960s might be welcome, but it isn't what most contemporary young people seem to want. If your commitment is not to particular social outcomes but to authentic youth voice, you have to listen to their priorities. Of course, today's young people are diverse and disagree among themselves, but the proportion who want to move the country in a radically leftward direction is small. For example, in many of the programs that encourage young urban students of color to choose their own issue for activism, the stance they choose is basically defensive and--in a Burkean sense--conservative. They fight against school closings, privatization, and budget cuts. In other words, they seek to preserve the status quo. That may not be anyone's favorite kind of civic engagement (including theirs), but it surely counts.

April 16, 2010 10:54 AM | category: advocating civic education | Comments



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