being a friend to a project

The other day, in the Summer Institute of Civic Studies, we were reading a long review article about Positive Youth Development (PYD). PYD can be described as a set of empirical hypotheses with supportive evidence (e.g., that youth flourish best when given opportunities to contribute to their communities). Alternatively, it could be defined as a set of value propositions that may or may not be empirical (e.g., youth have a right to contribute to their communities). It can also be described as a set of programs for young people. Those programs exist because of funding streams and other policies that can be categorized as PYD as well. And it’s a community of people–scholars, practitioners, policymakers, and maybe youth–who are involved with PYD.

Presented with an article, you can read it, learn from it, agree with it, criticize it, assess it, share it, cite it, even assign it. But you can’t be a friend of the article. It exists in its final form and can’t be influenced. It can have fans, but not friends in a recognizable sense of that word.

You can be a friend of something like PYD, assuming that it is a community of people or set of programs. Such a friendship can incorporate criticism–or even require it. For instance, I think PYD should be more political. Youth should have more opportunities to change official systems. I can say that as a friend of PYD, even as part of the PYD community. My friendship is predicated on a decision that PYD has potential, that it is worth engaging. My friendship does not depend on my assent to any particular list of hypotheses or principles, nor my endorsement of any particular program.

I say all of this for two reasons. First, academics learn how to relate to texts as critical readers. We are also supposed to learn how to relate to other scholars as people. But we learn less about how to be friends of communities or movements. Some of us are good friends (in that sense), but it’s not really part of our training.

Second, I think the relationship between empirical hypotheses and actually existing movements is widely misunderstood. It turns out to be true that many youth flourish when offered certain kinds of opportunities to contribute to their communities. That claim of PYD is true because a community of practitioners set about to create such opportunities and made them work. The knowledge that we have gleaned through research on PYD is a product of their efforts. This doesn’t mean that knowledge is subjective or relative. Some programs succeed, others fail, and we can measure the difference. But no program succeeds without being designed and implemented, which requires a prior commitment by some organized group.

The knowledge contained in an article about PYD is thus dependent on people’s work in the world. You can’t be a friend of the article, but you can be a friend of the people upon whom it depends. If the article contains a mistake, you should notice that. If the programs fail to work, you can help them to work better. A community can falter, splinter, or go in the wrong direction, but it can’t be invalidated. That means that a critical response to a publication is disagreement, but a critical response to a movement is action.

About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.
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