a critical review from the left

Alan Singer has written a strong and (in its own way) valid critical review of my recent book with Jim Youniss, Engaging Young People in Civic Life. Singer begins:

    Former Congressional Representative Lee Hamilton, director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University, makes the purpose of this book clear in the preface. Civic education means moderated discussions in classrooms, encouraging participation in student government, preparing students to volunteer in their communities and enlist in the armed forces, and promoting participation in electoral politics. Civic engagement, as represented in this book, is polite. Unstated, but clear from its absence in the preface and throughout the text, it does not mean passion, and it does not mean questioning authority, challenging social inequality, and organizing protests against government policies.

    The Civil Rights Movement is briefly mentioned on page 7 and Martin Luther King, Jr. on page 273. NOW, abortion rights, the labor movement, student rights campaigns, community control, and anti-Vietnam war and anti-draft protests are never mentioned. It is hard to believe, but in a book that claims to explore engaging young people in civic life, the movements that successfully engaged them when I was a teenage activist in the 1960s are completely ignored. That is because this book, sponsored by the Carnegie Corporation as part of its promotion of democracy in the United States, is not about civic engagement at all. It is about service-learning, electoral politics, and assimilating young people into the mainstream political


There is definitely some truth to this. I’m pretty pro-regime. I don’t like a lot of current policies and leaders, but I think the system is valuable, fragile, and liable to get worse if we don’t care for it. I don’t presume by the way, that all my co-authors would share that position; some are more radical. It does seem to me that preserving a system counts as “civic engagement,” so I can’t accept Singer’s claim that we’re “not about civic engagement at all.” We address several varieties of it, but we don’t define it as left-radicalism.

A major goal of the book is to benefit young people by giving them positive roles in their communities. We summarize research showing that such opportunities lead to better lives for the young people who participate. Although I also defend their right to protest and criticize, contributing to their communities pays off for them best–and that is a valuable outcome.

Singer writes:

    Young people have played major roles in transformative social movements throughout the 20th century and the first decade of the new century. In the United States, they were at the center of the civil rights campaign in Birmingham, Alabama, and bravely desegregated schools in the face of hostile mobs. In Soweto, South Africa, a student strike precipitated the campaign

    that brought down the apartheid regime. In the 1960s and early 1990s high school and college students were major participants in mass anti-war movements and protests that helped to bring down the Soviet Union. In Europe and the United States immigrant rights campaigns have mobilized young people. There is much to report, if this is what you believe is important.

This is all true, but four caveats apply. First, the valuable outcomes of such participation were the social changes they achieved. For instance, young people played an important role in overturning Jim Crow in the American South, and that was a great achievement. But it didn’t benefit them directly. Doug McAdam shows in Freedom Summer that the elite, predominantly white college student participants who went to Mississippi in 1964 were worse off than a comparison group in terms of their happiness, tangible welfare, and satisfaction in the 1980s. They paid a steep price for their activism. Their sacrifice was commendable, but our book is mostly about something else: helping disadvantaged young people to do better in life.

Second, the outcomes of youth political participation are not inevitably good. European fascism had a strong youth component. The American Civil Rights movement had distinguished elders. If you want to change the world for the better, the key questions are: What kind of change is desirable? And how can we get it? Whether and how youth should participate is a subsidiary issue.

Third, student activism was relatively rare even at the height of what we call “the sixties.” In 1968, according to the HERI College Freshmen Survey, just 29.9% of first-year college students frequently talked about politics. This was during a year of assassinations, a momentous presidential election, the draft, riots, and war. In 1970, 3.1% of college freshmen considered their views “far left.” Another 33.5% considered themselves liberals, leaving the majority as moderate, conservative, or unwilling to say.

Finally, imitating the radical movements of the 1960s might be welcome, but it isn’t what most contemporary young people seem to want. If your commitment is not to particular social outcomes but to authentic youth voice, you have to listen to their priorities. Of course, today’s young people are diverse and disagree among themselves, but the proportion who want to move the country in a radically leftward direction is small. For example, in many of the programs that encourage young urban students of color to choose their own issue for activism, the stance they choose is basically defensive and–in a Burkean sense–conservative. They fight against school closings, privatization, and budget cuts. In other words, they seek to preserve the status quo. That may not be anyone’s favorite kind of civic engagement (including theirs), but it surely counts.

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