John W. Gardner (1912-2001, no relation) was the most impressive public citizen of my time. Trained as a psychologist, president of the Carnegie Foundation at an early age, and a dedicated public servant who served as Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare in the cabinet of President Lyndon Johnson, Gardner achieved his most important influence in the latter part of his life, as a private citizen. He launched and helped guide important initiatives like Common Cause, the Independent Sector, the White House Fellowship, and Encore; of equal importance, he served as a role model and mentor to many leaders in the social sector, including William Damon, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, and me, with reference to our Good Work Project.
Toward the end of his life, John Gardner issued a challenge which has haunted me ever since. He said (in so many words), “Howard, there have never been so many young people in America doing good things. But, it does not add up. And, that’s because while they are helping hundreds or perhaps even thousands of people, we are passing legislation which affects millions in a negative way, and fail to enact legislation which facilitates the causes and the ends to which the young people are dedicating their energies.”
Keeping that message in mind, I’ve often commented that things will change when leaders like Wendy Kopp of Teach for America, or Dave Levin and Mike Feinberg of KIPP, begin to serve in Congress.
As a result of research conducted by my colleagues and me, and my membership in a research group on “Youth and Participatory Politics,” I now have a different view of John Gardner’s challenge — both in terms of young people and of politics.
It is often said that young people today are disengaged from political life. And, in a literal sense, that is true. A small minority of American youth are well-informed about national and international affairs, vote regularly and go to meetings or join political organizations. But, if one takes a more expansive view of politics, one that takes into account the deployment of digital media, we encounter a quite different picture. Nearly all youth express their opinions to friends; most young people circulate stories that they find of interest. Many of them support causes in which they believe, signing petitions or contributing financially. When there is a cause of strong interest, such as the legislative move to undermine net neutrality or censor certain sites, they assemble in the millions and even help bring about the defeat or withdrawal of that legislation. Perhaps most intriguingly, young people who pursue strong interests online (e.g., belonging to the Harry Potter fan communities) are most likely eventually to participate in political discussions and action, offline as well as online.
My view has also changed because of the evolving landscape of politics in America. Whatever the differences that existed, the America of John Gardner (and, for that matter, of the younger Howard Gardner) had leaders who were widely respected; political parties that had some coherence and enduring philosophies; and legislators who, despite their differences, made common cause both domestically, and especially, on international affairs, to yield a functioning government. Today, it is hardly a surprise that young people are disaffected from government and even the word “politics,” because they have never seen a political class or a political process that they can admire.
I’m convinced that we will never reconstitute the governmental terrain of the middle of the 20th century. For good and bad, both individuals and groups exert loud and insistent voices that cannot be silenced; and the ideal of authoritative print and broadcast media is gone forever. The governments of the 21st century must perforce take into account both the ubiquity of digital media and the wide range of opinions and actions that they enable.
It is all too easy to envision both utopian and dystopian outcomes. On one utopian script, policies and leaders who reflect the better instincts of the public will emerge, enabling outcomes that most people desire while protecting minority voice and instincts. This was the dream of the founders of the Internet and of the World Wide Web. On one dystopian script, there will be perpetual cacophony; on another dystopian script, the loudest voices — individual, corporate, or political action committees funded by the well-heeled — will wrest control of discourse and enable actions that serve those who already have the power.
It is far too early to say which of these outcomes will prevail. But, it is not too early to sketch them out and to begin to work toward the achievement of benign alternatives.
Banner image credit: Stanford University