Civic and political engagement in young people

Martyn Barrett and Dimitra Pachi look beyond voting, at what schools can do to encourage active citizenship.

There is a myth about young people’s attitudes to politics – that they are politically disengaged. In fact, there are many different ways in which people can be civically and politically engaged, and much that psychologists can do to encourage this.

Youth of voting age are less likely to be registered to vote in elections than older generations. Youth that are registered to vote do so less frequently than older generations. And the percentage of youth who vote in elections has been in steady decline since the 1970s (International IDEA, 2004; Macedo, 2005; Putnam, 2000).

However, civic and political engagement can be about so many activities – voting is certainly not the only way. Some forms of participation, called ‘non-conventional’ political actions, sidestep the electoral arena. Examples are participating in political demonstrations, protests and marches, signing petitions, writing political articles or blogs, and liking and sharing political articles, images and videos on social media. Other forms of participation may be focused more directly on providing direct help to other people in need, solving community problems, or raising money for charitable causes – these are sometimes termed ‘civic’ rather than ‘political’ actions because they avoid the conventional political arena entirely (Barrett & Zani, 2015a).

Furthermore, the evidence is clear that, while young people’s commitment to voting is indeed in decline in many democracies today, large numbers of young people are nevertheless strongly committed to non-conventional and civic forms of participation. So whereas, in the past, issues of concern might have mobilised them into voting for particular parties or candidates in elections, these issues today might be tackled instead through consumer activism, protests and demonstrations, activity on social media, charitable fund-raising, or voluntary work in the community (Barrett & Zani, 2015b; Forbrig, 2005; Kiesa et al., 2007; Marsh et al., 2007).

The reason for this pattern is not hard to find: politicians and political institutions are often perceived by young people as having little interest in their concerns and interests. Needs go unmet. As a result, youth lose trust, and feel marginalised and excluded from the conventional political arena. They seek out alternative forms of participation to support the political and civic causes that matter to them.

That said, young people’s disengagement from conventional politics is a worrying trend. The youth of today will eventually become the older generation of tomorrow, and voting behaviour in later life is related to the voting habits developed in youth (Geys, 2006). Another worry is that, if youth fail to vote in sufficient numbers, politicians who are elected to positions of power will be far more likely to undervalue or even ignore the views of youth, substantiating young people’s views of politicians, and creating a vicious cycle.
So the question arises: can anything be done to break this cycle?

The role that schools can play
There is now a wealth of evidence to show that education is a powerful tool for boosting young people’s political and civic engagement, including their engagement with conventional politics. Indeed, it has been known for many years that irrespective of whether education is measured in terms of level of attainment or years of education, the higher the level of education the more likely it is that a person will have high scores on measures of civic and political engagement (Delli Carpini & Keeter, 1996; Emler & Frazer, 1999). For example, Verba et al. (1995) found that adults’ political knowledge, political interest, civic skills, and civic and political activity are all related to their educational level.

Part of this relationship stems from the enhancement of the specific political and civic knowledge, skills and behaviours that are directly targeted by the school curriculum. However, in addition, Niemi and Junn (1998) found that while the contents of the civics curriculum are indeed related to students’ knowledge about government and politics, the teaching method is also important – more knowledge is acquired if students are allowed to discuss and analyse political issues in relationship to contemporary events, rather than having to memorise historical facts or facts about government organisation and processes.

However, the relationship between education and civic and political engagement is even more wide-ranging than this. Zukin and colleagues (2006) discovered that students who attend schools that provide training in civic skills (e.g. letter writing and debating) are more likely to be involved in organisations outside school, to sign petitions, to participate in boycotts, to follow political news, to engage in charitable fund-raising and to attend community meetings. Students who participate in classroom discussions about volunteering are more likely to volunteer regularly, to work on community problems, to participate in charity fund-raising, and to try and influence other people’s voting.

Furthermore, having an open classroom climate at school appears to be one of the most important factors that can enhance students’ civic and political engagement. An open classroom climate is characterised by students having the opportunity to raise controversial social and political issues that are of interest, to discuss these issues openly, to listen to a range of different perspectives and opinions, to make up their own minds, and to express opinions which differ from those of other students and from those of the teacher. All of this takes place within a classroom environment in which students are respectful towards one another and tolerant of the views of others. Having an open classroom climate is a major and consistent predictor of young people’s levels of political knowledge, political interest, and intentions to vote in the future (Schulz et al., 2010; Schulz et al., 2017; Torney-Purta et al., 2001).

As well as studying in a democratic environment, having the opportunity to participate in school councils and parliaments is another important way in which students can obtain first-hand practical experience of the democratic process, representing others, and expressing views and perspectives to people in positions of authority. Participation in a school council is an additional significant predictor of political knowledge and intentions to vote in national elections in adulthood (Schulz et al., 2017; Torney-Purta et al., 2001).

Volunteering and service learning
Another action that schools can take to promote the civic and political engagement of youth is to provide institutionally organised opportunities for volunteering. The benefits of volunteering have been well documented (Billig, 2000; Hart et al., 2007; Hatcher et al., 2017). For example, the amount of time that school students spend doing volunteer work predicts how likely they are in adulthood to vote, help others in difficulty, participate in community action programmes, and participate in volunteer and other civic activities.

A distinction may be drawn between volunteering and service learning. Volunteering involves giving time freely without financial reward to causes or to help other people, and it includes philanthropic or charitable activity. Service learning, by contrast, emphasises learning and reflection. It is an institutionally required, course-based, educational experience in which students participate in service activities that benefit the community beyond the school; afterwards, students are required to reflect on their service activity to develop their academic learning and to gain further understanding of course content. Service learning differs from volunteering in that it is a formal component of academic study and is initiated by the school, and it explicitly requires learning in pursuit of educational goals.

As such, service learning is an experience that can be made mandatory by schools. The most beneficial effects occur when service learning courses support students in developing their autonomy, involve activities that are authentic and significant for the students themselves, offer them real responsibilities and challenging tasks, provide them with opportunities for in-class discussion, and provide them with opportunities for reflection; that means the quality of these courses, in terms of content and processes, is of paramount importance for their effectiveness. Courses with these characteristics lead to higher levels of political interest and commitment to undertake action in the future (Levesque-Bristol et al., 2010; Morgan & Streb, 2001).

Practical implications
The implications of research into the effects of the school on young people’s civic and political engagement are clear. In the UK, the House of Lords Select Committee on Citizenship and Civic Engagement recently examined ‘The ties that bind: Citizenship and civic engagement in the 21st century’, and they took note of the contribution that school education can make towards nurturing active citizens. We hope that the research we’ve reviewed provides clear indications of the types of actions that schools can take in order to promote young people’s active citizenship, and to help them re-engage with the sphere of conventional politics.

More generally, psychologists have a vital role to play in informing practical action within this area. For example, developmental psychologists, through the use of longitudinal and cross-lagged panel designs, are extremely well-placed to identify the optimal educational practices and interventions that can promote the future civic and political engagement of young people. Furthermore, social and political psychologists, who have developed sophisticated conceptual models of the psychological resources and processes underlying democratic engagement, can identify the competences that schools should be attempting to enhance in their students. Indeed, the Council of Europe has recently developed a Reference Framework of Competences for Democratic Culture (Barrett, 2016; Barrett et al., 2018) which draws directly on the work of developmental, social and political psychologists alike. This Framework, which is aimed at enabling schools to enhance the democratic and intercultural competences of young people, is currently being implemented within the national education systems of 17 European countries.

- Martyn Barrett is Emeritus Professor of Psychology at the University of Surrey
[email protected]

- Dimitra Pachi
is Senior Lecturer in Psychology at the University of Winchester [email protected]

Note: This article is part of a special collection.

Key sources
Our recent book: Barrett, M. & Pachi, D. (2019). Youth Civic and Political Engagement. London: Routledge.

Barrett, M. & Zani, B. (2015a). Political and civic engagement: Theoretical understandings, evidence and policies. In M. Barrett & B. Zani (Eds.), Political and civic engagement: Multidisciplinary perspectives (pp. 3-25). London: Routledge.

Barrett, M. & Zani, B. (Eds.) (2015b). Political and civic engagement: Multidisciplinary perspectives. London: Routledge.

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