“Geeking Out” For Democracy (Part Two)

A close look at the recent presidential election shows that young people are more politically engaged now than at any point since the end of the Vietnam War era. 54.5 percent of Americans ages 18 to 29 voted last November, constituting a larger proportion of the total electorate — 18 percent — then Putnam’s bowlers, people 65-years-and-older (16 percent). The youth vote was a decisive factor in Obama’s victories in several states, including Indiana, North Carolina, and possibly Florida. John Della Volpe, director of polling for the Harvard Institute of Politics, told U.S. News and World Reports that the desire to make the world a better place was “baked into the millennials’ DNA” but “they just didn’t believe they could do that by voting.” Political scientist Lance Bennett has argued that unlike Putnam’s bowlers, this generation’s civic identities are not necessarily defined through notions of “duty” or through once-every-four-years rituals like voting; rather, he argues, they are drawn towards “consumerism, community volunteering, or transnational activism” as mechanisms through which to impact the larger society.

The Obama campaign was able to create an ongoing relationship with these new voters, connecting across every available media platform. Log onto YouTube and Obama was there in political advertisements, news clips, comedy sketches, and music videos, some created by the campaign, some generated by his supporters. Pick up your mobile phone and Obama was there with text messages updating young voters daily. Go to Facebook and Obama was there, creating multiple ways for voters to affiliate with the campaign and each other. Pick up a video game controller and Obama was there, taking out advertisement space inside several popular games. Turn on your Tivo to watch a late night comedy news show and Obama and his people are there, recognizing that The Daily Show or Colbert are the places where young people go to learn more about current events. This new approach to politics came naturally to a candidate who has fought to be able to use his Blackberry and text-messaging as he enters the White House, who regularly listens to his iPod, who knows how to give a Vulcan salute, brags about reading Harry Potter books to his daughters, and who casually talks about catching up on news online. The Obama campaign asked young people to participate, gave them chances to express themselves, enabled them to connect with each other, and allowed them to feel some sense of emotional ownership over the political process.

What has all of this to do with schools? Alas, frequently, very little.

Let’s imagine a learning ecology in which the youth acquires new information through all available channels and through every social encounter. The child learns through schools and after school programs; the child learns on their own through the home and family and through their social interactions with their peers. They learn through face to face encounters and through online communities. They learn through work and they learn through play. The skills they acquire through one space helps them master core content in another. Through the New Media Literacy project, we have been developing resources which can be deployed in the classroom, in afterschool programs, and in the home for self-learning, seeking a more integrated perspective on what it means to learn in a networked society. Yet, right now, most of our schools are closing their gates to those cultural practices and forms of informal learning that young people value outside the classroom and in the process, they may be abdicating their historic roles in fostering civic engagement.

In a 2003 report, CIRCLE and the Carnegie Corporation of New York sought to document and analyze “the civic mission of schools.” Historically, schools had been a key institution in fostering a sense of civic engagement. While their parents were bowling, their children were getting involved in student governments, editing the student newspaper, and discussing public affairs in their civics classes. The Civic Mission of Schools reports: “Long term studies of Americans show that those who participate in extracurricular activities in high school remain more civically engaged than their contemporaries even decades later…. A long tradition of research suggests that giving students more opportunities to participate in the management of their own classrooms and schools builds their civic skills and attitudes…..Recent evidence indicates that simulations of voting, trials, legislative deliberation, and diplomacy in schools can lead to heightened political knowledge and interest.” Yet, the committee that authored the report ended up sharply divided about how realistic it was to imagine schools, as they are currently constituted, giving young people greater opportunities to participate in school governance or freedom to share their values and beliefs with each other. Student journalism programs are being defunded and in many cases, the content of the student newspaper is more tightly regulated than ever before. Schools no longer offer opportunities for students to actively debate public affairs out of fear of a push-back from politically sensitive parents.

In reality, young people have much greater opportunities to learn these civic skills outside school, as they “hang out,” “mess around,” and “geek out” online. This may be why so many of them use social network sites as resources to expand their contact with their friends at school or why they feel such a greater sense of investment in their game guilds than in their student governments, or why they see YouTube as a better place to express themselves than the school literature magazine. Meanwhile, our schools are making it harder for teachers and students to integrate these materials into the classroom. Federal law has imposed mandatory filters on networked computers in schools and public libraries. There have been a series of attempts to pass legislation banning access to social network sites and blogging tools. Many teachers have told Project New Media Literacies that they can’t access YouTube or other web 2.0 sites on their school computers. And the Student Press Law Center reports that a growing number of schools have taken disciplinary action against students because of things they’ve written on blogs published outside school hours, off school grounds, and through their own computers.

In other words, rather than promoting the skills and ethical responsibilities that will enable more meaningful participation in future civic life, many schools have sought to close down opportunities to engage with these new technologies and cultural practices. Of course, many young people, as the Digital Youth Project discovered, work around these restrictions (and in the process, find one more reason to disobey the adults in their lives). Yet, many other young people have no opportunities to engage with these virtual worlds, to enter these social networks, on their own. These school policies have amplified the already serious participation gap that separates information-haves and have-nots. Those students who have the richest online lives are being stripped of their best modes of learning as they pass into the schoolhouse and those who have limited experiences outside of classroom hours are being left further behind. And all of them are being told two things: that what they do in their online lives has nothing to do with the things they are learning in school; and that what they are learning in school has little or nothing of value to contribute to who they are once the bell rings.

One of the goals of Project New Media Literacies has been to bring this participatory culture into the classroom as a key first step towards fostering a more participatory democracy . This isn’t a matter of making school more “entertaining” or dealing with wavering student attention. It has to do with modeling powerful new forms of civic life and learning, of helping young people acquire skills that they are going to need to enter the workplace, to participate in public policy debates, to express themselves creatively, and to change the world. As we are doing this work, we are bumping up, again and again, against constraints which make it impossible for even the most determined, dedicated, and informed teachers to bring many of these technologies and cultural practices into their classrooms. It isn’t simply that young people know more about Facebook than their teachers; it is that for the past decade, schools have sought to insulate themselves from these sites of potential disruption and transformation, hermetically sealing themselves off from these social networks and from the mechanisms of participatory culture. The first we can overcome through better teacher training, but the second is going to require us to rethink basic school policies if schools are going to pursue their traditional civic missions in ways that enhance these new forms of citizenly engagement.

This article was written for Threshold Magazine’s special issue on “Learning in a Participatory Culture.” Read more about Project New Media Literacies here.

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