teacher said this, oh I have sport, you know, its just you talk about your environment, and whatever they are doing in politics won’t affect you here now.”
It is possible that the ways we have come to describe youth have further isolated them from perceived “adult” politics. It is also possible that many of the ways traditionally used to describe political engagement have become either calcified or obsolete in describing contemporary youth’s attitudes, skills and knowledge for democratic engagement. There is, indeed, some limited research in this area. There are some students, to be sure, who feel comfortable developing their own civic identities and their own political outlooks with reference to the kinds of questions we asked and using a kind of discourse familiar and comfortable to many traditional researchers on youth civic engagement and political participation. But there are others, perhaps a large number of other youth and young adults, who use a different kind of discourse to describe their forms (and those of their peers) of political learning, identity, engagement and action.
Our understanding of the ways youth describe political action is complicated by the fact that researchers and educators continue to debate what counts and does not count. A student from the Ottawa Alternative HS Literacy class was the only student to seek a definition of being a political person. His teacher and the researchers struggled to provide a satisfactory answer. Is it a personally responsible young adult who does not litter? Is it a social justice-oriented adolescent who protests against security certificates? While most students in our study identified themselves as apolitical, their list of political activities on the questionnaire was extremely broad. The activities ranged from voting and donating to working election events and sitting on municipal government committees. Students at Fellowship HS noted that attending school was a political act for a Christian student. Students at Crestview Academy reported student council, in-school clubs and sports. Sandra summarized the position of most youth interviewed when she argued that “you can make a political statement with where you choose to spend your time.”
There is some indication of under-reporting of certain kinds of civic involvement among youth due to discursive variation. Other researchers have shown that youth may not identify their community work as civic engagement, perhaps because their participation is not inspired by a sense of civic duty. Instead, they volunteered for “the chance to help in a cause they believed in, to connect with friends, or to gain job skills.”xlix While our study did not find such results to be typical, some scholars found that youth would deny any involvement in volunteerism and then would continue to discuss their involvement in Big Brothers, day camps and coaching sports.l Youth in other studies did not identify their activities with the term “volunteerism”’ because they found it to be an “intimidating concept, something that required a major commitment that most could not, or were not, willing to make.”li The semantic and discursive barriers between generations can often make us fail to notice the ways in which youth are, in fact, actively engaged in political and community work.lii In short, many youth and young adults may see themselves as politically thoughtful and politically active, but not in ways that hit the radar of much research on civic engagement.
This may be particularly true of students’ use of the Internet as a source of political engagement. Ottawa students used their home page (typically MSN) and YouTube as their primary source of news. Facebook was a means of peer interaction about current events; Google searches provided research for school essays on activities and political processes; and e-mail provided connections to the activities of interest groups. Most teachers in our study underestimated the use of computer programs, asserting that newspapers were the most appropriate means for accessing political information. Other teachers did not know about YouTube or Facebook until students brought it to their attention during our visits.