on the importance of measuring civic engagement

Yesterday’s White House Summit on Civic Learning and National Service focused heavily on how civic learning and engagement should be measured at the college level–on the theory that if we don’t measure something, we don’t take it seriously and we can’t improve our practices. Right now, I am on a conference call discussing how ambitiously, and how often, the U.S. Census should survey Americans about our civic engagement. In the midst of these conversations, the National Journal’s Fawn Johnson published an article that drew heavily on the available public data (“Why Are Political Scientists Studying Ice Bucket Challenges?“). She writes:

Levine and his colleagues [who were numerous and more influential than I was] were instrumental in pushing the U.S. Census Bureau to add a series of questions to its Current Population Survey that might capture less traditional types of community involvement. Pollsters began asking respondents in 2008 if they have worked with neighbors to fix a community problem; if they have done favors for their neighbors; or if they are a member of any organization—whether it be religious, recreational, school, service, or sports.

The upshot is that we now know that well over one-third of Americans participate in one or more groups, the most common being religious and school organizations. We know that about 10 percent have served as a group officer or committee member of those organizations. We know that almost half of Americans talk to their neighbors frequently. About one-third of them discuss politics more than once a week.

Lo and behold, when you ask the right questions, the country doesn’t look nearly as disconnected as it might seem to the civics professors who wring their hands when only half of Americans vote.

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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.