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'Engaging Young People' (Part II)

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Aug. 26, 2009 -  Part two of the interview with Peter Levine, director of the The Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE), and James Youniss, a professor of psychology at the Catholic University of America. They are the co-editors of "Engaging Young People in Civic Life," a book out this month from Vanderbilt University Press (excertped from a phone interview):

The book mentions a finding that more college students report being involved in community service than in times past. How does this factor into civic engagement?

Youniss: It’s an important piece. I make the distinction between the majority of people who say they volunteer once or twice and people who do regular service that’s well organized. If you’re recruited to a valuable project, that kind of service is often the best. Working for an organization that has a specific policy purpose is likely to have political implications for the volunteer.

You have research showing that adolescents involved in community service in high school were substantially more likely as young adults to vote and volunteer, and that community service was more efficient in promoting engagement in adulthood than was civic education in high school. Explain.

Youniss: These are results of a study published by my colleague, Dan Hart, and me. We found that as the number of civics classes one took in high school increased, voting increased ever so slightly. On the other hand, having done either school-mandated or voluntary service gave a boost to voting (I recall about 14 percent eight years later.) Who would not want to boost voter turnout by 14 percent? Hence, service was a stronger predictor of voting than was number of civics classes. The data came from a national sample of students who attended high school from 1988-1992; voting occurred in 2000.

Speaking of civics classes, the book notes that teachers tend to shy away from introducing controversial political and social issues (the Iraq War, abortion, etc.) in the classroom -– or they present them in bland ways. Author Diana Hess argues in one of the chapters that just the opposite should be happening. Your thoughts?

Youniss: You don’t even understand your own point of view until you bring it in front others. Schools are so darned afraid to let a debate go on. Students don’t have discussions about these important issues, and if a teacher brings up abortion, parents call in and teachers are questioned. In my estimation, if you want to get young people engaged, talk about things they care about. Diana Hess offers teachers ways to stimulate civil discussion on issues that count. Moreover, there is reliable evidence that civics classes that have honest discussion, versus lecturing, lead to advances in knowledge.

We spoke earlier about ways other than voting that young people can show their civic engagement. What about joining a cause-based Facebook group?

Youniss: That’s a new form of engagement and networking, which can lead people to action. It’s certainly a sign of being engaged, but we don’t know a lot about it.

Levine: I don’t see why you can’t be active online. I do think there are questions about intensity and quality, but that’s always been the case. Wearing a campaign button is showing support but isn’t a big deal either. One-click kind of things are a problem for us researchers to figure out whether to count it as civic engagement.

You mention in the book that turnout rates were uneven in the last election. People with a college education voted at a significantly higher rate than those with no college experience. Get-out-the-vote registration is typical on campuses, but what about people with no ties to an institution who are slipping through the cracks?

Youniss: This is the second point of the book. The first point is that you can get youth engaged. The second point is that there’s a huge gap between college and non-college youth. When you look at voting rates and say 51 percent of the eligible youth vote came out in 2008, that figure really means that 69 percent of people with college experience voted and 33 percent of those with no such experience cast ballots. That’s a huge gap that applies to almost every measure of civic engagement that we have.

Our point is that you better start early, start in high schools and reform civics classes, which are often thought of as throwaways. It’s also important to have meaningful school government. The third part is making sure there are strong after-school programs.

Levine: This is an important question because people in the non-college-going group represent half of the young population. There’s promise on the internet. Surveys we’ve done find that young people who have internet access, regardless of their education level, are doing things like watching political videos or posting political messages on social networking sites. You’re in control of whether you get a MySpace account, but you aren’t in control of whether a political party reaches out to you. Many parties don't spend money on reaching out to [people who have no college experience].

Another important thing is to equalize the pre-college experience people have. There are good opportunities for excellent students in high school -- field trips to the state capitol, spots on student government. But the lower-performing students are often shut out. Before kids break into the college and non-college group, we should be opening up opportunities for everyone to be engaged. More extracurricular programs need to be equitable so that disadvantaged kids can take part.

One popular idea is community-based research with high school kids. Get them to do an oral history project about the history of St. Louis. That gives them a fair representation of the community and could connect them with their city.