Civic Engagement Should Be Part of Life
It may seem an odd adjective to use in describing a person in such an establishment role as the Providence Journal‘s Commentary page editor, but in writing and conversation Robert Whitcomb is an iconoclastic figure. His take on the reason for dissipating civic engagement among the young, in the United States, highlights the characteristic.
Whitcomb’s essay is brief, and he points his fingers in a variety of directions, so one-paragraph quotation would capture its sense, so read the whole thing. Having done so, perhaps you’ll agree that the tilt of his proposed solutions misses something that his complaints stroll right around. For example:
Colleges and universities can encourage more civic engagement by offering more political-science and other social-science courses that explain how students can use their citizenship to more effect. Student internships and academic leaves at public-policy think tanks and media outlets should be encouraged. Political-science departments and journalism schools can help facilitate these arrangements.
Such an approach — while I certainly wouldn’t advise against it — will tend to play into the specialization of interests that contributes to the problem in the first place. That is to say that it makes civic participation akin to a career option, when what a democracy needs is for it to be a constituent activity of life itself. Earlier, Whitcomb suggests that high schools’ imposition of community service might cast it as a requirement from which college sets them free; why, then, would colleges want to present political science in a similar light?
To broaden that notion: What’s needed, I’d suggest, is a return to general learning and cultivation of intellectual interest, which is much more difficult than siphoning some segment of student and young adult populations into an area of study and activity. Societywide, we have to begin rewarding action and discouraging passivity — encouraging exploration of problems and development of solutions on an individual basis and trusting that public action will prove sufficiently interesting to draw attention.
Unfortunately — and most definitely not surprisingly — those who currently inhabit the realms of politics and culture-making have reason to prefer begin left to their topical fiefdoms. Much better for the masses to become lost in the passivity of television, narcissism of social media online, and canned causes to assuage guilt than for everybody to have an opinion formed from personal conviction and tied to a learned habit of putting thought into action.