a lesson on civil society and civic engagement

I was a guest lecturer this morning at the Washington Semester, an undergraduate program run by American University. (The other guest was Judy Woodruff, who showed some of her footage from the Generation Next television series. She has conducted great interviews with hundreds of young Americans across the country.)

I presented the 40 indicators of civic engagement that we combined to form America’s Health Index for the National Conference on Citizenship. They are mostly survey questions that have been asked consistently for the last 30 years, such as “Have you worked on a community project?” “Did you vote in last month’s election?” “Does your family usually eat dinner together?” and “Do you believe that most people are honest?”

When you put these indicators together into an index, you see a pretty steep decline. Of course, that is an artefact of which variables you include and how you weigh them. I simply went through the 40 indicators, one by one, and asked the class such questions as: “Do you engage this way?” “Do you think it’s important for people to do this?” “Is it part of ‘civic engagement?'” “Why do you think it has declined since 1975?” “Is the problem with motivations? Or opportunities?” “What should we do about the decline?”

Overall, I thought it made for a lively discussion that brought out many of the empirical and theoretical issues in the field.