GETTING THEM INVOLVED

The Baltimore Sun

Peter Levine followed the pattern that he now sees as basic to getting involved in civic life. As an undergraduate at Yale, he was president of the student government.

Later, after he got his doctorate in philosophy from Oxford University - where he was a Rhodes scholar - Levine did not retreat into the ivory tower of academia; he joined the civic-based lobbying group Common Cause.

There was only one problem he found there. "The median age was very high," he says.

Surrounded by people of a certain age who had grown up assuming that you were supposed to be engaged with your community and with politics and such, Levine became concerned about the apparent lack of civic involvement among young people.

Levine, 40, came to the University of Maryland's Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) when it was founded in 2001. He became its director last year.

"The Pew Charitable Trust was starting a large strategy of focusing on young people and CIRCLE was basically its research arm," Levine says. "We have since diversified our funding, but have continued to be the research arm of the youth civic engagement movement.

"We don't directly work with kids or directly advocate for any organizations. We are an independent research center, collecting information that can help anyone interested," he says.

Levine has just published The Future of Democracy: Developing the Next Generation of American Citizens, which explores the lack of civic engagement among young people and suggests some things that can be done about it.

"The book is written in the first person singular," he says. "It is a personal argument that comes out of what we have learned over the last six years.

"The proceeds from its sale belong to CIRCLE because the staff there did most of the research," Levine says. "I just tried to pull it together and make a pointed argument about how we are not doing what we need to do to bring up the next generation." Why the focus on young people? Isn't the lack of civic engagement a problem with all ages?

The evidence we have shows that we get dyed-in-the-wool citizens before we turn 25. I have seen very few studies that have found anything that works with older people, that changes their basic orientation toward government and politics and reading newspapers and such. People are pretty stable once they have settled into adulthood.

But there is a lot of evidence that changing the behaviors of young people will have an effect for the rest of their lives, things like getting them involved in student government or the student newspaper or civics projects.

The real project here is the renewal of American democracy. It is focused on young people because they are much more malleable. Do you think lack of civic engagement is a particular problem now, or has this always been with us?

I do believe that there has been a decline. I think that story is real. It's not that simple because in some ways good things are happening now, as young people are experimenting in real interesting ways with the Internet. But overall, we have lost a lot of ground.

There are two pieces of data that really bother me. One is the decline in the number of people who say they have attended some sort of meeting - community, club, school, union, any place where real local issues are engaged. The other is the decline in the percentage of people who work on community projects. Those declines were really steep in the '70s, '80s and '90s, going from 60 percent down to the mid-30 percent in this decade.

The decline is most pronounced in people without a college education, so civic engagement has become a marker of social class. The working class is really dropping out of civic life. This means the people involved in civic life are much less representative of the community as a whole than they were in the 1970s.

I think this is partly due to the decline in various sorts of organizations - unions, churches, political parties - that used to help working-class people engage. And partly I think it is the hard time that working-class people have had in a lot of ways, with less secure jobs and a lot of economic difficulties, that make it difficult to engage in civic affairs.

And another factor is the decline in civic education in schools, aimed at young people. This is what the book is about. It is not the preponderant factor, but it is significant. What do you mean by civic education?

I define that broadly. Courses in school on subjects like government and civics used to be seen as an important part of the core of what school should do. But their numbers have declined as schools are now under the gun to improve reading and math test scores.

We know, too, that extracurricular activities have a very powerful, long-lasting effect on people's sense of civic engagement. And there we see a decline, also, but one that is very inequitable. Inner-city schools are less likely to have active student governments, student newspapers, things of that type, while the situation will be better in suburban schools.

I should note that one strategy to get more civic education courses is pointing out that they actually lead to better educational results. There is pretty good evidence that if students take these courses that challenge them intellectually, they will be motivated to stay in school, not drop out, and thus get a better education.

There has also been a push, here in Maryland and in many other states, for more service learning requirements. Things like that give students a sense of purpose that keeps them in school. And with students, do you again see difference in civic engagement reflected in their social class?

It doesn't perfectly track social inequalities, but it roughly does. I recently looked at focus groups that were done on 13 college campuses. Some had students that had come from high schools where they were very involved and given a sense of a civic mission. They had all sorts of experiences in high school and tended to continue that in college.

But some of the others were getting mainly kids who had very little civic background, who came from high schools dominated by students from working-class and poor homes. The sense you got from them was that someone else would be doing the governing.

And then you consider that half the population does not even go to college and you see the kind of problem this is. Are there places other than schools that can address this issue?

All sorts of institutions are paying less attention to cultivating a new generation of leaders. One example of that is political parties. It is remarkable how very uninterested they are in developing a new generation of party members and leaders.

It is a classic vicious circle. Young people are not involved, so time spent trying to get them involved is seen as wasted time. This means that young people are not educated or mobilized by the parties, so they get even less involved.

So all sorts of institutions need to address this issue. What are the hopeful signs?

There is a lot of online innovation and young people are often the leaders of it. When we look back on the current era, we might see the beginnings of a new set of worthwhile civic forms, a lot of them online.

I don't know if that's going to be adequate to address the decline, but it is noteworthy how things like blogs and social networking sites, often led by young people, do have a civic function. Most don't, but the number that do is quite large.

Volunteering has risen quite a lot. That covers a lot of ground, from soup kitchens to cleaning up parks, to mentoring. But also in that universe is a lot of really innovative projects, media production, things like Teach for America.

All the studies find, over and over, that young people are idealistic. In many case, if they are not given traditional vehicles for participation, they are doing it themselves.

michael.hill@baltsun.com

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