- Living Well Together:Citizenship, Education, and Moral Formation
Over the past two years, we have designed and team-taught a course called Citizen and Self which was created in order to counter simplistic narratives about young people, democracy, social change, and citizenship that often saturate popular media and, too often, the halls of the academy. Citizen and Self is the first part of a developing curriculum in the Honors College at Western Kentucky University, where we taught together for two years.1 We have grounded our course firmly in civic studies, using the Framing Statement of the Summer Institute of Civic Studies as a foundational document in the course's design.2 We are realistic in understanding that one course cannot revolutionize the broad and complex political, cultural, and educational systems in the United States. Yet, at the same time, we are firm believers that if we wait for a "Great Revolution" to change the world and bring about the sort of vibrant, just, and participatory democratic life that we long for, we would wait for a very long time. Thus, we understand this course as one way of contributing to the world we want, with the full knowledge that it is a small step.
In his provocatively titled book, The Dumbest Generation, Mark Bauerlein argues that young people today are selfish and uninformed, unable to think clearly, write well, and, to top it off, they are technology-saturated but cannot use the internet to perform even the most basic research tasks.3 Weaving together data and anecdotes, Bauerlein affirms what every curmudgeon already knows: teenagers are headed in the wrong direction. They are glued to their smartphones, Facebook pages, and Twitter feeds, and are [End Page 151] unable to concentrate for more than a few minutes on anything worthwhile or meaningful. They are politically disengaged, don't want to work hard, and care only about themselves.
On the other hand, there is a narrative about young people today as the saviors of both the present and the future. In this story, exemplified by Millennials Rising and Millennial Momentum, young people today are redeeming the failings of previous generations.4 They are volunteering in record numbers, swooping in as hopeful, capable, hard-working "super-kids," who will use their techno-savvy skills to change the world for the better.
In our work teaching and mentoring undergraduates, we have found that neither of these narratives sufficiently captures the complexity we observe. There are certainly data sets and anecdotes that support both characterizations of young people; yet neither the Pollyannaish nor the curmudgeon version of "kids these days" leaves room for complexity and contingency. We argue that the growing interdisciplinary field of civic studies has the potential to provide a useful framework for a more nuanced story about the current generation of young people and the role they can play in shaping our world. The possibilities for greater civic identity and engagement are substantial, but the chances of bringing this about will not be helped by dramatic pronouncements of doom and disaster, nor by cheerleading and hope mongering.
Each year, the Summer Institute of Civic Studies begins by reading Vaclav Havel's 1992 address at Wroclaw University. In that speech, he speaks of the dissidents who
. . . despite the risks involved and the uncertainty of any real changes resulting . . . repeated over and over again that the emperor was wearing no clothes. This Sisyphean, almost quixotic stance originated mainly in the moral or existential field, in a heightened feeling of personal responsibility for the world. That is, the political activity of the dissidents had, far more obviously than it might have in conditions of freedom, a spiritual or moral dimension. Their way of thinking and behaving, their values, the claims they made, their style of work, their standards of success and failure . . . can rightly appear inappropriate, alien, impractical, and idealistic when transferred to real politics in democratic conditions.5
Although we are quick to point out that teaching our course is a far cry from Eastern European dissidents risking their lives to call for freedom, there is some similarity, if only in the Sisyphean feel of...