Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Students lead civic engagement, old people follow

From very early on in the history of civic engagement in higher education, one narrative has ruled. It goes like this: young people should become civically engaged because they are less engaged than old people. And we can know if they are engaged if they behave like old people.

That narrative runs through Bowling Alone, and it is certainly at the heart of The Greatest Generation, the two most widely known books on civic engagement in the United States.

The narrative is also implicit in a lot of the service-learning and civic engagement activities in higher ed, which have tried over time to engage students in politics, help them connect service and policy, advocate public service.  The reasoning is clear--if that is how people used to behave, it is a good way for people today to behave.

I have used that narrative a hundred times in one way or another. But I've stopped now. It turns out that since September 11 students are more civically engaged than before by many traditional measures--voter turnout, for example, or expressing a commitment to service through their lives, or pursuing a career in public service. (Check out CIRCLE's website for the best assemblage of research on the civic behavior of young people anywhere on the web.) This is not to say that we have a new "greatest generation," just that there is movement in some areas.

Even more important than changes in the behavior of students is the changing behavior of old people. Rather than leading, old people (I am one--I am 44, and if you believe this stuff, was born in the first year of Gen X) are following young people. We should follow more.

Take the recent Pew Survey which shows more distrust in government today than at any time in recent memory. That widespread lack of trust in government, and in big institutions as a whole, is long-standing, particularly among engaged students. The New Student Politics:The Wingspread Statement on Student Civic Engagement described student distrust of politics and government in 2001, and noted that such distrust had deep roots. Or consider the Tea Party Movement, which is demographically similar to the nation as a whole (that is, only 16 percent of Tea party supporters are under the age of 30), but which uses organizing tactics pioneered by young people.  In many ways, then, adults have come along to the point where youth were a decade ago. 

This is a good thing. Why? Because if adults are really going to follow young people, then we will pick up a couple of civic traits that engaged young people have already developed.

First, however much we trust or distrust government, we will learn to trust strangers all over the world. The remarkable thing about trust among engaged young people is that it flourishes on the internet, even in situations where people do not know each other or where they might be expected to distrust each other. Put another way, the internet has taught young people that it is reputation, not position or personality, that merits trust. Politicians and pundits continue to imagine that it is the other way around.

Second, we will learn that we are responsible for trying to solve problems ourselves. Yes, policy and politics are important. But old people of right and left have put them at the very heart of public life. They don't belong there, because there is no heart of public life. Instead there are systems of public life, and we control pieces of them. Angry about education? Sure complain, but also start your own school.

Third, we will learn that organizational boundaries do not matter. A few days ago I got to listen to 7 Westminster students talk with activists from around the developing world about civic engagement (thanks Utah Council for Citizen Diplomacy for sponsoring the event). As they described their desires for the future, it was clear that young people (and activists in the developing world regardless of their ages) were committed to doing whatever worked. Sometimes that might mean starting a business, sometimes feeding the hungry, sometimes standing for election, sometimes protesting against the elected, sometimes using data, sometimes passion. The traditional ways of talking about engagement by focusing on institutions--government, businesses, schools, churches, non-profits--is too narrow. It limits activism to particular cubby holes, at least in the eyes of activist students.

The ways students talked about organizing--find a problem, start towards a solution, make things up as you go, always be organizing but never be tied to an organization--has some problems. But in a world where institutions are hollow, and leaders insular, it seems a good way to be. One we old people can learn from.

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