Conference Summary: June 15-17 2000

This report addresses mainly the situation in the United States.


2000 Conference Summary

One conference participant quoted nineteenth-century statesman Disraeli in
describing the current times then as, "an age when to be young and to be
indifferent can no longer be synonymous. We must prepare for the coming hour.
The claims of the future are represented by suffering millions, and the youth of a
nation are the trustees of posterity." Yet today, low levels of civil involvement
and political apathy remain prevalent among many young people in the United
States, an example of which is shown in the low proportion of newly eligible
voters who cast a ballot, and the widespread belief that adolescents do not have
sufficient political knowledge. While voting participation is only one mode and
indicator of civil participation, many youth in the United States today do not
know how to vote, where to vote, nor even the reason to vote, much less know
about political candidates and their platforms. Many believe that the government
cannot make a difference, just as their individual vote does not matter. To some,
"being a citizen is about being listened to, and people don't respect your views
until you're older." While youth community involvement and volunteerism is on
the increase, more formal political participation, where it is difficult to see
immediate results, is decreasing or remains stagnant. Moreover, many youth in
the United States today are physically, economically, and racially segregated,
feeling disenfranchised from political processes and participation. They also have
less exposure to adults on a sustained basis than any previous generation. Much
time is spent with media, often solitary, either surfing the Internet or watching
television. The political life that today's youth have experienced is one of "big
ads, big money, and high public scandal." How can society respond to this
context in seeking to increase youth civic engagement? The conference suggested
recommendations in the areas of education, schools, programs, and research,
applicable mainly to the United States.

  1. Civic education should begin very early. Parents should take on
    the duty of modeling civically responsible behavior at home, an education that
    should continue in school. Schools should evaluate K-12 civics education and
    provide an improved civics curriculum that is applicable to the real world and
    allows students to take on real decision-making roles, connecting classroom
    instruction with everyday life experience.
  2. More research should be performed on what is occurring inside schools
    and classrooms that focus on civic-related subjects.
    A fresh examination of
    the multiple ways in which schooling can contribute to citizenship should be
    undertaken. This should include looking at curricula, textbooks, opportunities to
    investigate and discuss political issues, and school-based activities. The
    preparation of children and adolescents for the practice of citizenship should be of
    high status in the programs of schools, in collaboration with parents and their
    communities. For those who go on to college or university, there should be a
    committed faculty, a supportive administration, good community connections,
    and strong commitments to educating and encouraging students to vote, especially
    in an environment where practical reasons such as not being in one's home
    community can easily deter an already reluctant or indifferent college student
    from voting.
  3. Although more research is necessary, a growing body of literature has
    shown that some service-learning programs are successful in civically engaging
    youth.
    The positive effects of service-learning on those who participate can
    include a lower likelihood of engaging in high-risk behaviors, greater
    interpersonal development and ability to relate to culturally diverse groups,
    greater commitment to service now and later, and an increased motivation to
    learn. Service-learning combined with reflection often increases mutual respect
    between teachers and students, and can also lead to more positive perceptions of
    schools and youth by community members. Such programs should be evaluated
    and expanded further.
  4. Design programs to reach out to out-of-school populations. Given
    the roles that schools can and should play in civic education, the rising trend of
    homeschooling raises several questions still to be resolved. If it is the state's
    responsibility to teach and require civic engagement, what leverage does the state
    have in making recommendations in the private context of homes where parents
    control both the academic programs and social interactions of children? What
    exactly are the boundaries of parental authority over their children in terms of
    their educational environment? If control over education is shared among state,
    parents, and children, how should courts or society make decisions should these
    interests conflict with one another?
  5. Increase the use of technology to engage youth in political participation.
    As the influence of the Internet grows and Internet-use increases among
    youth today, the Internet must not be overlooked or underestimated as an
    effective, educational tool in fostering political learning and youth civic
    involvement in times when young people spend hours "surfing the Net." While
    the range of educational websites available on the Internet is increasing, young
    people are often not aware of these sites; furthermore, these sites are oftentimes
    not technologically sophisticated enough to attract youth. Candidates, politicians,
    and civic educators should increase efforts to make political information readily
    available online as well as render it more attractive, technologically and
    otherwise, in outreach directed and based on youth needs and interests.
  6. Create opportunities for authentic participation. While youth are
    our future, they are also our present and need to be involved now to help them
    develop the skills needed as adults. Studies of successful youth civic programs
    demonstrate that many of these programs share the common elements of
    integrated dialogue, discussion, and the presentation of ideas and exchanges of
    perspectives between youth and adults. Youth-adult partnerships are important
    components that must be cultivated. Research shows that youth are more
    receptive to adults who "get it," that is, adults who understand power-sharing, are
    tolerant, and are open to diversity on all levels, not just towards young people.
    Youth organizations have a real and underutilized potential to help young people
    feel more confident in their ability to identify issues, work with others, organize
    and take action, and build commitment to long-term participation.
  7. We need to reframe adult's views of youth as assets. Adults
    must be ready to listen and to give equal consideration to young people's
    viewpoints, often unique from the rest of society. Consideration needs to be
    given to how young people are at present actively and politically involved in their
    communities, independently from civic-education courses. Such a focus would
    present opportunities to build upon what young people are already interested in
    and doing. Adults must recognize the individually and diversity of youth, and
    take into account their interests and ways of expressing themselves. Young
    people should be seen as resources and assets for their communities rather than
    deficits. Youth are not just "recipients" of programs, but are "partners" in their
    organization. A successful program includes offering youth opportunities to
    exercise genuine influence, of which ramifications they can see immediate results.
    Also important is to mobilize already active youth to galvanize