Thursday, December 13, 2007

Civic Life, Youth and Libraries

It figures this would happen the day I turn in my LIS768 paper! As mentioned, my paper focused on how libraries can take advantage of the massive amounts of online content creation being generated by today's youth by offering services and programming that seeks to channel the energy and creativity found there toward a more dynamic, relevant form of civic engagement. Yesterday, the MacArthur Foundation announced the "the launch of the new International Journal of Learning and Media, through which core issues facing young people in a digital age will be explored."

Doh! Do you know how great it would have been to have been able to read these a few weeks ago?

The first six titles are available online and probably worth a look for anybody whose interested in youth and their relationship with technology.

Abby is taking her nap, so I'm reading the first title, "Civic Life Online: Learning How Digital Media Can Engage Youth," which might as well have been the title of my own paper. In the first chapter, W. Lance Bennett has the chutzpah to bring up all sorts of things I conveniently left out of my own paper or failed to even consider. I hate him. But he points out that there are two "sharply differing views of what constitutes civic engagement and citizenship for young people both on and off line."

The engaged youth paradigm, as he calls it, holds that the so-called lack of civic participation amongst today's youth is due to a failure on the part of our government to recognize the "generation changes in social identity that have resulted in the growing importance of peer networks and online communities." Traditional forms of civic engagement are viewed by today's youth with skepticism, lacking authenticity. New forms of civic engagement, while nascent, are occurring online, a "new spectrum of civic actions," as Bennett calls them.

The disengaged youth paradigm, on the other hand, acknowledges the possibilities of this new spectrum of civic engagement emerging online, but focuses "on generational decline in connections to government (e.g., voting patterns) and general civic engagement (e.g., following public affairs in the news) as threats to the health of democracy itself."

These two paradigms don't seem so terribly far apart to me, though if forced to chose my sympathies would lie more with the engaged youth paradigm. Millions of youth are creating, remixing and disseminating content online. Some of it could be said to taking advantage of this new spectrum on civic engagement emerging online, but a huge majority of it, as the disengaged youth crowd believe, is focused on self-expression and consumer advocacy with some fortuitous civic spindrift. But we can't simply chastise youth for not debating the merits and drawbacks, 250 years on, of our founding fathers belief in a representative democracy as opposed to a direct one. What we need to do, and this is what I suggested in my paper, is work to channel these online creative endeavors toward, as Peter Levine suggests, building the "foundations of civil society in the twenty-first society." After all, maybe what youth are doing with this explosion of online content creation is opening up new, reinvigorated ways to be a citizen. Maybe the fact that they're disengaged from the more traditional forms of civic engagement is because, as Bennett points out, they're flawed. "Telling young people to participate in bad institutions," Bennett writes, "is mere propaganda."

The goal, then, is to bring these two paradigms together and leverage the creativity and enthusiasm that's occurring online to help create new, exciting and tangible ways for youth to effect community change, to become engaged citizens. Libraries, long viewed, perhaps romantically, as bulwarks of democracy, have an opportunity to step in and facilitate this. This is especially true when you consider that civic education in our nation's schools is either extinct or exceedingly dull. Bennett writes:

A massive International Education Association (IEA) survey of 90,000 fourteen-year-olds in twenty-eight nations suggested that civic education, where it is offered, remains largely a textbook experience, largely severed from the vibrant experiences of politics that might help young people engage with public life.

So, how do libraries work with the youth in their communities to create a more vibrant civic experience, more aligned with their creative online endeavors? The opportunities for building new civic and political communities in such an environment is ripe for the plucking. Again, libraries need to be in the thick of this!

1 comment:

Joe said...

The two paradigms to me seem to give government too much responsibility or credit for involvement in this. That's not to say that I don't love your vision of having libraries be there, but I think there's a lot of groundwork to do before government is going to play any useful role.

Let me know if you find out who's doing it. Did you ever see this picture?