Civic Purpose among American Youth Today

Political knowledge and interest among the young has been in decline for fifty years. Although some of today’s young are active in civic and political affairs, there are huge gaps in the interest and participation of the broader youth population. Such gaps can be found in voting patterns, political knowledge, aspirations to civic leadership, and attitudes towards public life.

Even in the highly charged 2008 presidential election, only 52% of 18-24 year-olds voted, a mere 4% increase over 2004 and on the low end of trends since 1972 (when 18-year-olds were first granted the vote). Our own research on youth purpose has found that only a tiny fraction of young Americans now aspires to political leadership. What’s more, young people’s attitudes about our democracy are often marked by skepticism, distrust, and lack of interest. Of special concern is that disadvantaged and culturally marginalized populations of youth often express the highest degrees of alienation and disaffection.

Over the past several years, I have pursued a research program devoted to understanding how young people acquire and act on goals that are both personally meaningful and oriented toward contributing beyond the self – that is, how young people develop purposes that motivate their social behavior over the long term. This research has documented the positive effect of purpose on academic, social, and civic outcomes. A dimension of purpose that is critically important in a democratic society is civic purpose. When young people acquire civic purpose, it can motivate them to tackle noble challenges, such as establishing organizations for environmental protection and providing much-needed assistance to people in developing countries.

Civic purpose is a fundamental developmental and educational outcome that prepares the ground for fully engaged citizenship. Civic purpose requires the following:

  1. Concern beyond the self: The recognition that we live in an interconnected society in which the welfare of any one individual depends to a large extent on the well-being of the whole society.
  2. Civic virtue: A sense of obligation to protect, defend, and contribute to one’s society, and to sacrifice for it when necessary.
  3. Awareness of politics as consequential: Appreciation that political decisions and actions affect our lives, the lives of those we care about, and the welfare of the society we share.
  4. Agency: The desire to have a voice in what happens and the belief that one’s voice matters.
  5. Preparation for participation: The recognition that, in order to make a positive contribution, civic knowledge and skills are needed.
  6. Practical idealism: Ideals and aspirations must be put into action; reciprocally, actions must reflect careful judgment and informed choices.
  7. Identity: A sense of self as a concerned citizen, an attachment to one’s country, and an awareness – suffused by gratitude – that the best traditions and ideals of one’s society are a legacy handed down through the labors and sacrifices of many who have gone before.

In our initial research on the state of civic purpose among American youth today, we have found little interest in national political affairs. But we did find civic activity around issues of personal concern, such as the availability of sports programs. We have recorded instances of early civic and political activities such as preparing for future leadership through studying and learning; giving speeches; writing essays about civic and political issues; organizing other students and raising their awareness of civic issues; fundraising; representing students in school government roles; campaigning by going door to door; interning for a political official; making changes at school by advocating new policies; meeting with experts on issues such as environmentalism and law; protesting community events that cause anger; lobbying; writing e-mails to officials; and communicating to one another about issues of societal concern on social media. In addition, we found expressions of faith in the American democracy and the American Dream that contain far more idealism than common media portrayals of such notions, even among students from highly disadvantaged urban areas. But all of these positive glimmerings of civic purpose are set against a backdrop of far too much apathy, detachment, and lack of interest. I’ll be writing on this blog more about this in coming weeks, as a follow-up to the book that is to be released in May 2011, Failing Liberty 101 How we are leaving Young Americans Unprepared for Citizenship in a Free Society.

2 Responses to “Civic Purpose among American Youth Today”

  1. Stuart MacLean says:

    I would suggest a reading of Bastiat’s “Economic Harmonies” as ‘one who has gone before’. (Available on-line). His passion was a knowledge that “Self interest” is not inconflict with ‘society’.

    “TO THE YOUTH OF FRANCE” – Bastiat – 1850

    “Love of study, and lack of fixed opinions—a mind free from prejudice, a heart devoid of hate, zeal for the propagation of truth—ardent sympathies, disinterestedness, devotion, candor—enthusiasm for all that is good and fair, simple and great, honest and religious—such are the precious attributes of youth. It is for this reason that I dedicate my work to you. And the seed must have in it no kernel of life if it fail to take root in a soil so generous.”

    “I had thought to offer you a picture, and all I have given you is a sketch; but you will pardon me; for who, in times like the present,1can sit down to finish a grave and important work? My hope is that some one among you, on seeing it, will be led to exclaim, with the great artist, Anch’ io son pittore! and seizing the pencil, impart to my rude canvas color and flesh, light and shade, sentiment and life.”

    “You may think the title of the work somewhat ambitious; and assuredly I make no pretension to reveal the designs of Providence in the social order, and to explain the mechanisms of all the forces with which God has endowed man for the realization of progress. All that I have aimed at is to put you on the right track, and make you acquainted with the truth that all legitimate interests are in harmony. That is the predominant idea of my work, and it is impossible not to recognize its importance.”

    “For some time it has been the fashion to laugh at what has been called the social problem; and no doubt some of the solutions that have been proposed afford but too much ground for raillery. But in the problem itself there is nothing laughable. It is the ghost of Banquo at the feast of Macbeth—and no dumb ghost either; for in formidable tones it calls out to terror-stricken society- a solution or death!” …………….

    From “Wants, Efforts, Satisfactions”:

    “And now the theorists who seek to build a system out of all this division and conflict step forward. “It is the inevitable result,” they say, “of the nature of things, that is, of freedom. Man is possessed of self-love, and this is the cause of all the evil; for, since he is possessed of self-love, he strives for his own well-being and can find it only at the expense of his brothers’ misfortune. Let us, then, prevent him from following his impulses; let us stifle liberty; let us change the human heart; let us find another motivating force to replace the one that God gave him; let us invent an artificial society and direct it as it should go!”

    He certainly had an appreciation of his inheritance.

    Thank you,

    Stuart Maclean,
    Portland, Oregon

  2. Bob Macaraeg says:


    I read “American Amnesia” at the Hoover institute website and whole heartily agree. I have a ten and seven year old daughters and also I am a girl scout leader and can tell you more to support your thesis. Can you recommend any good civic text books. I went on to ebay and there were a few copies of Pearson/Prentice Hall Magruder’s American Government. Any other good books outh there or a list of recommended civics books by grade? Things has changed since 1976.

    Thank you,

    Bob Macaraeg