Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Friday, March 16, 2012

When you teach people in relatively authoritarian settings for most of their life, how realistic is it to expect them to be engaged?

H Street clean up, March 2004
Picking up litter on H Street, March 2004.

When I was an involved student in college, when people would talk about "apathy", i.e., "student apathy" or a lack of interest in getting involved in issues on campus, be it about the quality of teaching, the university's policies about student conduct, the building program, or the US involvement in El Salvador, etc., besides the fact that students were typically on campus only for four years, and saw their stay as relatively temporary, the other thing I used to say was:

When you teach people in relatively authoritarian settings for 13-17 years of their lives, you can't expect them, upon graduation, to become active, free-thinking, participating members of society.

This comes up because reports are out on a study just published in the Journal of Personality and Social Society which asserts that "Millennials might not be so special after all, study finds" from USA Today. From the article:

Published online in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, the study finds Millennials (born 1982-2000) more civically and politically disengaged, more focused on materialistic values, and less concerned about helping the larger community than were GenX (born 1962-1981) and Baby Boomers (born 1946 to about 1961) at the same ages.

It does find "some good trends," such as a rise in volunteering and a decline in prejudice based on race, gender, and sexual orientation — the result of more individualism, says Jean Twenge, professor of psychology at San Diego State University, one of the study's authors.

Getting back to my point about being a subject--lectured at--rather than being more engaged in the world around you for most of your life during school-time, why should anyone be surprised that people aren't engaged in the world around them?

So besides developing opportunities for engagement in school settings (just like universities have service-learning programs) and neighborhood settings, we need to rethink, reorganize, and restructure our civic organizations and governance structures so that people--including children and adolescents--have the opportunity to, can be, and are engaged in an equitable fashion, whereas most civil organizations are more oriented to privileging participation for a subset of people, and representative democracy--government--isn't set up to engage people all that much, except as "eye candy."

That doesn't mean that there aren't ways to engage citizens, from subsidiary governance structures like Community Boards in New York City, or sub-city borough governments in places like London or Montreal, to planning organizations like Neighborhood Planning Units in Atlanta, participatory budgeting methods to guide certain types of appropriation and grant decisions.

But there is no question that we need to focus first on the level of engagement that is possible within current structures and systems, and work to improve it, rather than continually blaming particular groups for not participating... (this also happens with regard to voting, see the various pronouncements from the Center for the American Electorate).

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