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Stanford Report, June 30, 1999

Scholars explore ways to foster citizenship, combat isolation among adolescents

BY JAMES ROBINSON


The average adolescent spends four hours a day in his or her bedroom, usually alone, often watching television, cruising the Internet or playing video games. Whatever happened to playing baseball or jump rope with the other kids on the block, or doing anything that might instill a sense of togetherness, or even community?

Demographic information suggests that most children have their own rooms, "which are virtual communications centers," says William Damon, professor of education and director of the Center on Adolescence. "Two-thirds of them have their own TVs, a lot of them have phones, 30 to 50 percent of them have computers in their rooms and can go online, so they don't need to go out. They don't even need to watch television with the rest of their family."

The growing isolation of adolescents and the resulting effects on society at large were explored in a recent conference, "Creating Citizenship: Youth Development for Free and Democratic Society," which the center sponsored. The working meeting ­ more of a three-day brainstorming session than a formal academic conference ­ brought together about 50 of the nation's foremost experts on adolescence as well as scholars from several foreign countries.

Although the scholars came from different places, backgrounds and even disciplines, they reached a consensus on the problems facing youth and suggested some possible ways of addressing them.

"It's very clear from the data that people brought in from all parts of the world that young people these days have become detached from the larger civil society, including the body politic, caring about who's running the country, including the kinds of organizations that young people used to take an active role in," Damon said.

"The world of young people has become confined to a very small universe of their own immediate face-to-face relationships. On that level they look very good. . . . But once you get beyond those circles, even to other kids in school who you don't know so well, it all starts falling apart."

Only a few weeks ago, Damon was in Littleton, Colo., where he was holding a town meeting organized by MSNBC in the aftermath of the high school shootings there. He said it was "overwhelming" to witness in an academic environment the kind of isolation he so often describes.

"You've got these kids existing in these teeny little cliques ­ it can be two to three kids ­ and they can get weirder and weirder and further out and further out. In some cases it's totally harmless and they'll grow out of it, and in other cases they go down paths that you really don't want to see kids go down," he said.

For the two high school students in Littleton who killed 12 students and one teacher, Damon says, "there are thousands like them all over the country."

The conference began with welcoming remarks from, John Gardner, a preeminent figure in the area of public service who is the founder of Common Cause, former secretary of Health, Education and Welfare and now a consulting professor in the School of Education.

"We have to alter the extraordinary emphasis on individual performance" that takes place in today's classrooms and which gives short shrift to community building, he said.

Taking a broad view of citizen participation, Gardner said that government officials "are not worthy of our trust until citizens take positive action to hold them accountable." And addressing the conference's topic, Gardner said young people needed to be instilled in the virtues of public service at an early age.

Damon noted that in recent years there has been a growth in the number of public service programs in which young people participate, such as Stanford's Haas Center. Such an optimistic sign is rare, however. In 1972, the first presidential election in which 18- to 21-year-olds had the right to vote, only 42 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds cast ballots. At the time, that participation was considered "shameful," he said, while others, hopefully, figured that "it's a start" and that youth voting would increase. But the share of 18- to 24-year-olds voting has decreased consistently since 1972, dipping to 28 percent in the 1996 election.

"What can we as scholars do to help understand and promote good citizenship?" Damon asked conference participants.

Judith Torney-Purta, a professor of human development at the University of Maryland, noted that beginning in the 1960s, civics classes were discredited. "When there were funds for instructional improvement, other subjects were of much higher priority. Some thought that courses in 'civic education' or 'education for citizenship' opened the possibility of indoctrination in the school," she said in a background convening paper she presented to the conference.

In the last decade, however, she said, there "has been increasing attention paid to the concept of 'civil society.' Where 10 years ago 'civil' rarely appeared as a modifier except for civil rights, this term has now become enshrined in public and professional discourse. . . . One purpose of action within civil society is to make demands on the state or to hold its officials accountable, but civil society functions more broadly and with autonomy from the state."

At the end of the three-day conference, participants reached a consensus on a number of things that could be done to help reverse the trend toward less community participation ­ including a revamping of civics classes.

"We need a new kind of civic education that is much more personalized" compared to current civics curricula, Damon said. "We need to give all kids role models that they can really identify with, role models for positive civic action ­ success stories of people who have gained power in society and used it to the good."

Another point of consensus was getting children involved at an early age in community service programs, including taking leadership positions in these groups. "That way they can see what it's like when the collective establishment together orients itself to a larger purpose beyond immediate self-gratification," Damon said.

Finally, the mass media need to expand access to young people, conference participants concluded. "Young people need to be offered channels for the expression of their own culture," Damon said.

In several months, a consensus paper from the conference will be posted on the conference's website, www.stanford.edu/group/adolescent.ctr/.

"This will set out a list of priorities that will influence the way the public thinks about what kids need today, about what policy makers are doing and what research is being done. It will also set the stage for our second conference," Damon said. That meeting will take place next year at Brown University.

The conferences are being supported by the Carnegie Corporation of New York. SR