Sept. 11 as Civics Lesson

By Thomas H. Sander and Robert D. Putnam
Saturday, September 10, 2005

The cloud of Sept. 11 still hangs over us four years later, but there is something of a silver lining. For out of that horrible event has come a renewed commitment to civic engagement among a crucial segment of the population: young people who were near college age on Sept. 11, 2001. New evidence from multiple sources confirms that those Americans who were caught by the flash of Sept. 11 in their impressionable adolescent years are now significantly more involved in public affairs and community life than their older brothers and sisters.

After a quarter-century decline of interest and participation in national politics among young Americans, a host of measures turned upward after 2001. Voting rates among 18- to 24-year-olds increased by 23 percent -- 2 to 12 times faster than those of other age cohorts in the national elections in 2002 and 2004. Since Sept. 11, young adults have expressed heightened interest both in "government and current events" and "social issues," according to surveys of high school seniors. And other long-term national surveys show that college freshmen are increasingly discussing politics -- once again a reversal that dates precisely to the fall of 2001. This politicization is especially pronounced among people ages 18 to 21 on Sept. 11, 2001, with a slightly lesser effect on Americans who were between 22 and 25. There seems to be little or no enduring Sept. 11 effect among older generations.

The jury is still out on younger high school students; it will take years to see if their political interest and behavior parallel those of the 18- to 25-year-olds, but early signs are promising. Young adults had begun to increase their volunteer activities about five years before Sept. 11, 2001. Eighty-two percent of high school seniors volunteered in 2004, a 14 percent jump from 1986, and the average frequency of volunteering increased a full 50 percent.

Undoubtedly some of this "volunteering" was that in name only, since a third of students attended schools requiring volunteer activities to graduate. Others volunteered to burnish their record for college applications. Nonetheless, the long-term impact is substantial, since volunteering habits begin in youth.

Why would the 2001 terrorist attacks affect this generation so? It was what educators call a "teachable moment." The attacks and their aftermath demonstrated that our fates are highly interdependent. We learned that we need to -- and can -- depend on the kindness of strangers who happen to be near us in a plane, office building or subway. Moreover, regardless of one's political leanings, it was easy to see that we needed effective governmental action: to coordinate volunteers, police national borders, design emergency response preparedness, engage in diplomacy, and train police and firefighters. Government and politics mattered. If young people used to wonder why they should bother to vote, Sept. 11 and now, Hurricane Katrina, gave them an answer.

All of us need to celebrate this new generation of better citizens. Moreover, we ought to emulate any wise camper: blow on this spark and coax it into something bigger. National and local policies are the key to fanning this flame. First, increase funding for service learning programs and encourage mandatory community service programs in high school, since research shows that civic dropouts benefit most from such programs. Second, beef up and revive civics education; make it less about memorizing the number of U.S. senators and more about experiential learning (petitioning government to build a local park or playground).

Finally, we could put wind in these sails through a cross-generational call for sacrifice. For example, all Americans need to sacrifice by conserving energy to reduce our reliance on the volatile Middle East rather than asking youth to sacrifice their lives fighting in Iraq. Even tax policy is relevant. Cutting taxes on rich folks as we declared war was not only historically unprecedented, it was also a terrible civics lesson. It implied that we were not all in this together, and that we did not need to make shared sacrifice, even as young Americans were becoming convinced for the first time in 30 years that our nation was (or could be) a "we," not just a collection of self-interested "I's." Increasing taxes on the well-off, the historical norm in wartime, could show 18- to 25-year-olds that we truly are in this together; the current policy sacrifices their financial future for our present.

We'll have to wait some years to see if this budding civic engagement blossoms, but it could prove to be the largest civic shift in the past half-century.

Thomas H. Sander is executive director of the Saguaro Seminar: Civic Engagement in America, at Harvard University. Robert D. Putnam is the director of the seminar and author of "Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community."

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