9/11 and civic participation, revisited

In a recent post, I took issue with an op-ed that Tom Sander and Robert Putnam had written in the Washington Post. I thought they were arguing that 9/11 had caused young people’s values to change, and as a result young adults had become more involved in civic life, broadly defined. I suspect, in contrast, that what matters is the opportunity and the invitation to participate, not one’s values. Thus 9/11 wouldn’t matter unless it caused adults to create more civic opportunities for youth. I cannot prove this thesis, and in fact I am currently seeking money for a longitudinal study to test it. In any case, Tom Sander has replied to my blog, noting correctly that I had misread aspects of his original op-ed. He and Putnam did not claim that 9/11 changed values, leading to more volunteering. Instead, they believe that 9/11 helped to increase interest in politics and discussion of current events–which I find quite plausible. Sander and Putnam have adopted a subtle position for which there is some evidence (although I wonder why youth turnout declined slightly in 2002, if interest in politics was up). Anyway, I don’t want to confuse the major question–“Values or opportunities?”–by misrepresenting anyone’s views.

Incidentally, the following article is relevant:

Edward Metz and James Youniss, “September 11 and Service: A Longitudinal Study of High School Students’ Views and ResponsesApplied Developmental Science, 2003, Vol. 7, No. 3, Pages 148-155. This is a “study of a suburban public high school near Boston. … Results from our pre-post measures revealed only an immediate increase in students’ political interest and no changes in intended civic participation. Descriptive findings showed that most students’ view of the world was changed after 9/11. Yet, fewer students reported that their view of themselves had changed. … Statistical analyses showed that students who organized service had enhanced and sustained levels of intended civic participation compared to students who responded through other means or not at all.”

2 thoughts on “9/11 and civic participation, revisited

  1. PW

    I meant to tip you off, Peter, to the article by Rebecca Solnit in the latest Harper’s, Uses of Disaster. Can’t remember whether I actually did or not, now. But it’s very relevant to what you’re, demonstrating how disasters tend to create a strong civic sense among the victims while the government, when it rushes in to “help,” tends to break up that cohesion and civic engagemen by “taking charge.” I have some excerpts from the article at my place, but it’s a nice piece of writing and thinking and worth the price of a copy of the October Harper’s and/or a quick bike ride to the library!

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