Liberal Education

What Do We Know about Civic Engagement?

A decade ago, research on the civic engagement and learning of young people was still in a “bear market” (Cook 1985). The body of literature was strikingly small, considering that the future of our democracy depends on the preparation of young citizens. A few fine scholars wrote on this topic, but they were scattered among political science, developmental psychology, and educational research, with little interdisciplinary dialogue and few inroads into other relevant disciplines, such as sociology and communications. Their scholarship had little impact on practice.

Today the situation is dramatically different. There is a torrent of research on youth civic engagement, ranging from highly technical articles and monographs to popular magazine articles and books. Last year saw the publication of the 706-page Handbook of Research on the Development of Citizenship: A Field Comes of Age, comprising twenty-four chapters by fifty-three authors, most of whom write frequently on related topics (Sherrod, Torney-Purta, and Flanagan 2010). The press now pays attention to youth as citizens. Youth civic engagement was a significant theme in the national election of 2008, with (for example) both major party presidential nominees taking time out on 9/11 to endorse youth service programs.

We might define the field of youth civic engagement as comprising all the programs that engage young people to be active citizens, plus relevant research and evaluation. This field is not monolithic but instead consists of several distinct projects. Each project has its own objectives for social reform that depend on facts about how young people are engaging in public life, hypotheses about what kinds of programs or strategies would enhance their engagement, moral premises, and strategic analysis about how to change large-scale policies and priorities. In the following sections, I describe several such projects in turn.

Improving society through youth service

In April 2009, President Barack Obama signed the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act, which (among other provisions) authorizes tripling the number of full-time federal civilian service positions to 250,000. Not all of these slots will be reserved for youth, but a large majority will be filled by young Americans who will work as volunteers for federally funded nonprofits. To implement this law, the administration has requested $1.416 billion in fiscal year 2011. Judged by the numbers, the Kennedy Act represents by far the most important policy intervention in youth civic engagement.

The explicit theory of the act is that social problems can be addressed by enlisting people as volunteers: noncareer workers who are unpaid or low-paid. The bill’s sponsors and supporters spoke eloquently and prolifically about the power of service to address education, energy conservation, health care, and economic opportunity for “disadvantaged individuals.”

In fact, very little empirical evidence exists about the impact of youth service on the recipients or their broader communities. With a few exceptions (e.g., Hahn, Leavitt, and Aaron 1994), the research is not comparative—it doesn’t ask whether voluntary youth service works better than professionalized government programs or market solutions—nor does it consider what economists would call opportunity costs and externalities. For instance, service might sometimes be more cost-effective than government programs, yet expanding service might reduce the number of secure government positions, with negative consequences for communities. Shirley Sagawa (2010) provides a good current summary of the research, but I think much more evidence would be required to justify Congress’s faith that service effectively solves social problems. One virtue of the Kennedy Act is its support for evaluation; we will find out whether its empirical premise is valid.

Meanwhile, political theorists have criticized “service” as a core component of citizenship, arguing (among other things) that it encourages a distinction between the active server and the passive recipient, that it marginalizes civic engagement as something to be done temporarily and unprofessionally, not as an aspect of one’s life work, and it ignores questions of power (e.g., Boyte and Kari 1996). Some service programs, however, clearly avoid these drawbacks.

Helping young people thrive by enlisting them as contributors to society

A second stream of research and practice focuses not on the impact of civic engagement on the recipients of services, but rather the benefits for those who engage. The theory and practice of Positive Youth Development (PYD) provides considerable evidence that young people develop in healthier ways when they are given opportunities—or even mandates—to be civically engaged (Eccles and Gootman 2002; Lerner 2004). Longitudinal studies show that young people who serve their communities and join civic associations succeed in school and life better than their peers who do not engage, even once one adjusts for other factors and even if one considers only mandatory service programs (Dávila and Mora 2007). Those findings are bolstered by randomized field experiments using PYD programs (e.g., Hahn, Leavitt, and Aaron 1994).

Overall, the empirical evidence supports the thesis that at-risk teenagers benefit from service and membership opportunities, and the return on investment can be quite impressive. Two major empirical questions have received less attention. First, would these results generalize to other young populations that face different kinds of challenges? Students at selective, four-year colleges and universities are an example. They are not at risk for the same problems faced by low-income teenagers (such as dropping out of high school), but they still have psychosocial problems. There is some evidence that community service at the college level can reduce binge drinking (Weitzman and Kawachi 2000), but much more research should be done.

Second, the PYD literature focuses on the effects of positive and rather noncontroversial activities, such as joining sanctioned voluntary associations and giving one’s time or money to mainstream causes. But “civic engagement” can also mean adversarial, critical, and contentious political behavior. That kind of engagement is rarely measured in PYD studies (see the measures in Zaff et al. 2010), let alone correlated with indicators of thriving or flourishing. Doug McAdam showed rigorously in his book Freedom Summer (1988) that the successful college students who went to Mississippi to fight de jure segregation in 1964 paid a severe psychological price for their acts. They had higher divorce rates, lower employment rates, and less happiness and satisfaction by the mid-1980s. They were heroes for their contribution to civil rights, but their kind of “civic engagement” was bad for their psychological well-being (not to mention that three of them were tortured to death within the first week of the summer).

There is some risk that the default justification for civic engagement may become its psychological or developmental benefits for participants; resources will then be directed to noncontroversial “helping” and “joining” activities, and youth engagement will become largely therapeutic. Once again, the field faces fundamental philosophical questions that cannot be settled with empirical data alone. Does our present society merit supportive youth engagement, in the form of volunteering and membership, or does it demand radical critique? And if critical engagement is appropriate, how must we weigh the benefits of social reform against the costs to those who engage?

Making politics more equal by engaging disadvantaged young people

Virtually every form of political influence in the United States is unequal. For example, voting is strongly correlated with social class, with college-educated adults at least 22 percentage points more likely to vote than their counterparts who have never attended college (Nover et al. 2010). Equalizing political influence would require changes in formal institutions and processes, such as campaign finance laws. But there is also a case for educating and organizing lower-income and marginalized people so that they get in the habit of speaking, advocating, and voting within the system that exists today and thereby helping to reform it. Evidence strongly suggests that such efforts should be focused on young people, because habits of participation (or nonparticipation) form in youth and are then difficult to change (Levine 2007, 70–74).

Some educational programs have been found to have lasting, positive effects on the propensity to vote, especially for low-income students who start with lower levels of engagement. Kids Voting USA is an example: it combines assigned readings of political news with classroom discussions, student journalism and research, and a mock election, and it achieves increases in knowledge and commitment to participate in politics (Meirick and Wackman 2004).

Unfortunately, the educational experiences that motivate young people to engage politically—discussions of controversial issues, participation in school governance, uncensored student media, field trips, and other interactive political activities—are much more common in schools that enroll privileged students than in schools that serve poor and minority populations. Within diverse schools, these activities are dominated by the more advantaged and academically successful students (Kahne and Middaugh 2009; Levinson 2007). In short, K-12 education—a government-funded, public institution that was created to equalize political voice—tends to have just the opposite effect, increasing gaps by social class.

Although large-scale surveys of young Americans show a correlation between studying politics and political engagement, we should ask whether the quest for political equality can rely primarily on civic education. Educational programs have smaller effects than political processes and such factors as poverty and segregation do (Niemi and Junn 1998; Gimpel, Lay, and Schuknecht 2003). A related question is whether the state has a right to mobilize young people for politics, even if it does so in an ideologically neutral way.

Reforming society by mobilizing the next generation

A fourth project that contributes to the field of youth civic engagement is social reform with a generational angle. The central idea is that the members of today’s younger generation, often called the Millennials (born 1985–2004), have distinctive and admirable attributes that will help to remedy the problems that we older people have created for them. Chief among their distinctive characteristics are a propensity to serve (marked by record-high volunteering levels), appreciation of diversity, creativity and entrepreneurship, and resistance to the dead-end ideological debates and culture wars of the previous decades.

The portrait is controversial. I keep on my shelf the following pair of books. Generation We by Eric Greenberg and Karl Weber (2008) is subtitled, How American Youth are Taking Over America and Changing Our World Forever. Norman Lear provides one of many enthusiastic endorsements on the back cover: “The Bible tells us, ‘a little child shall lead them.’ . . . Greenberg and Weber chronicle today’s wonderful young people as they push, pull, and propel us toward global salvation.” But I also own The Dumbest Generation by Mark Bauerlein (2008), subtitled How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future, or Don’t Trust Anyone Under 30. The back cover warns: “If they don’t change, they will be remembered as fortunate ones who were unworthy of the privileges they inherited. They may even be the generation that lost that great American heritage, forever.”

If these books are witnesses for the defense and the prosecution, I would give my ultimate vote to the defense. I think the positive trends (rising volunteering rates, strong turnout in 2004 and 2008, and tolerant attitudes) outweigh the negative ones (record-low interpersonal trust and news media use), while other measures of civic engagement (such as students’ knowledge of politics) are remarkably flat. Although there is nothing inevitably good about youth movements—European fascism was an important example—this generation inspires somewhat more hope than fear in me.

On the other hand, the whole business of making a case for or against a generation should be viewed with suspicion, for four reasons. First, generations are arbitrary constructs: babies are born every second, and all the important trends in civic engagement are smoothly continuous, not broken suddenly at twenty-year intervals. Second, there are many aspects of civic engagement, and some rise while others fall. Third, people born around the same time can have totally different formative experiences. For example, about one third of young Americans are not graduating from high school today, and they come of age in very different circumstances from their contemporaries who attend four-year colleges. The gaps in volunteering and voting rates by educational experience are vastly larger than any differences among generations. Almost three quarters of young college graduates voted in 2008, compared to 26 percent of young high school dropouts (Nover et al. 2010).

Finally, we do not know how the current generation of younger adults will turn out over their life course. The children of post-War suburbs who bought Davey Crocket hats and acted like Charlie Brown and Lucy were wearing dashikis and love beads a decade later. Today’s younger generation had early experiences with peace and prosperity, but more recently have faced the longest war in American history and the deepest recession since the Great Depression. To the extent that they have typical formative experiences, we cannot yet say what those experiences will be.

Notwithstanding all those caveats, there is something to the idea of social reform through generational mobilization. In the 1920s, Karl Mannheim (1952) argued that younger adults have valuable roles as critics, reformers, and renewers of society, even as elders contribute experience, and people in their middle years hold most of the managerial responsibility. Thus one does not need a strongly positive evaluation of the Millennials to motivate a commitment to youth civic engagement. It is always valuable to get younger people constructively involved, and to do so effectively requires careful attention to their particular traits. Each generation has distinctive assets and challenges that one must understand in order to develop strategies for civic renewal.

With regard to the current generation of young people, the most salient characteristics appear to be fondness for online social networking, experience with volunteer service, comfort with diversity, unprecedentedly high levels of support for the winning presidential candidate (in 2008), low interpersonal trust, low levels of formal group membership, and particularly wide economic disparities and divergence of experiences by social class. This is the mixture of which something valuable can and must be made.

Other strands of research and practice

The four research agendas that I have outlined above seem the best developed, with the largest base of literature and the deepest influence on practice. There are, however, other agendas that contribute to the field.

Some character education programs put their emphasis on ethical, political, or civic engagement. For example, Dennis Barr, evaluation director of Facing History and Ourselves, writes that the program “integrates the study of history and ethics in order to promote young people’s capacity and commitment to be thoughtful and active participants in society who are able to balance self-interest with a genuine concern for the perspectives, rights and welfare of others” (Barr 2005, 156). Facing History and Ourselves is a well-evaluated program that draws mostly on moral development and character education, but the link to civic engagement is also strong.

Some efforts to enhance racial, ethnic, or cultural diversity in educational contexts (K-12 schools, colleges, and universities) are also relevant to civic engagement, because they treat cultural diversity as an asset for building better knowledge, culture, and social institutions. That premise implies that it is not enough to enroll diverse students, hire a diverse staff, and assign diverse texts in class; one must also engage diverse people in creative, collaborative work. Independent studies have found positive effects from various programs with diversity themes (Pascarella and Terenzini 2005).

Yet another strand of work comes out of “deliberative democracy.” The theory originally emerged as a critique of the premise that politics is nothing but the clash of interests. People do not merely advocate and negotiate interests; they also discuss values and thereby form ideas about who they are, what they want, and what is right. Some kinds of talk are better than others, and the marks of quality typically include the diversity of the participants, their equality of influence, lack of coercion, freedom of speech, openness and transparency, reasonableness, and civility (Mansbridge et al. 2010 provides a critical summary).

The application of deliberative democracy to youth civic engagement has not been thoroughly explored, but the clear implication is that young people should learn to deliberate. Various projects and experiments suggest that they can learn from direct experience as deliberators (Hess 2009).

If deliberative democracy is a critique of politics as mere negotiation among interest groups, then the theory of “public work” can be introduced as a critique of deliberative democracy. Public work theorists say that deliberation is too narrowly concerned with discussion, reflection, and judgment. Politics also involves making things together: direct, hands-on work that can be woven into people’s paid employment and not just reserved for community meetings and seminars (Boyte and Kari 1996). The theory of public work strongly influences certain youth civic engagement programs, notably Public Achievement and Earth Force, both of which involve teams of high school students in projects.


I have briefly summarized several empirical research programs that seek not to celebrate, but to critically evaluate their research subjects. Nevertheless, an obvious goal is to make the practical work succeed by identifying and demonstrating positive impacts and by helping sort out the effective strategies from the ineffective ones. Underlying these intellectual efforts is some kind of hope that the practical programs, when done well, succeed.

That hope is largely hidden, because positivist social science cannot handle value commitments on the part of researchers; it treats them as biases to be minimized and disclosed, if they prove impossible to eliminate (Levine and Higgins-D’Allesdandro 2010). But we can look for researchers’ motives in an appreciative spirit, believing that an empirical research program in the social sciences is only as good as its core values.

Note that it is not at all obvious why we should hope that youth service, Positive Youth Development, political education, social reform through generational mobilization, or deliberative democracy will succeed. These are expensive and tricky strategies. For instance, the core empirical hypothesis of PYD is that society will get better outcomes for youth if we help them contribute than if we use surveillance and remediation. But it would be cheaper and more reliable if we could cut crime with metal detectors in every school instead of elaborate service-learning programs. So why should we hope that PYD is right?

I think part of the reason is simply that things are not going very well in the world, and scholars seek alternatives that may be obviously better (more efficient or sustainable, less corrupt and wasteful). That is part of the reason, but it doesn’t fully explain the focus of these research projects. If you’re worried about violence in American high schools, you should look for something new that works. But why should that new approach include service and leadership programs, instead of better metal detectors and video cameras?

Ultimately, all of my examples are anchored in philosophical commitments that I would describe as partly Kantian. Immanuel Kant argued that the individual is a sovereign moral agent, and our responsibility to others is always to help them develop their capacities for autonomy and voluntary cooperation. Real Kantians are willing to defend autonomy even if the consequences for health and welfare turn out to be bad. But pure Kantianism does not influence power, nor does it satisfy most people’s intuitions. So the research projects I have mentioned here are motivated by a kind of moderate or strategic Kantianism, similar to the philosophical view developed by Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum under the heading of the “capabilities approach” (Alkire 2002).

The best initiatives, on this view, are the ones that achieve efficient and reliable improvements in tangible human welfare by enhancing people’s autonomy. Strategies like PYD and political education stand out as worthy of study because of their Kantian values. They do not manipulate youth but assist them in developing their autonomy. Yet these strategies deserve critical scrutiny on utilitarian grounds. If they fail to deliver the promised practical outcomes, they should be improved before they are abandoned. The same attention should not be given to surveillance systems or top-down managerial structures. In theory, those solutions might produce just as good outcomes, but helping them succeed would not enhance the participants’ autonomy. That is the implicit moral theory behind these research programs.

Today, it is a risky strategy for scholars to admit their core moral commitments. The smartest move is to pretend that a research program is simply scientific and that all the outcomes of interest are utilitarian. But those assumptions are indefensible philosophically, and they distort research in various subtle but damaging ways. For example, if we try to justify youth service programs because they cut drop­out rates and teen pregnancy, we are likely to shift those programs in the direction of noncontroversial service, when the real (but undisclosed) motive may be to make young people into political leaders. If as researchers, educators, and practitioners we spell out our actual reasons, we can analyze them critically, take responsibility for them, and make them more complex and persuasive.


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Zaff, J., M. Boyd, Y. Li, J. V. Lerner, and R. M. Lerner. 2010. “Active and Engaged Citizenship: Multi-group and Longitudinal Factorial Analysis of an Integrated Construct of Civic Engagement.” Journal of Youth and Adolescence 39 (7): 736–50.

Peter Levine is director of the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) at the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Citizenship and Public Service at Tufts University..

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