Young Canadians have been and are being raised in the midst of the information revolution. This revolution appears to both disable and enable their political involvement. On the one hand, youth complain of information overload; they feel that there are so many problems in the world, and so many different ways of acting, that they grow overwhelmed and cannot identify the most appropriate method of action.liii The pervasive media ensures that youth experience major political issues (like conflicts and war) through the filter of passive media like television, and they are “‘disconnected’ from any meaningful channels of action.”liv On the other hand, the introduction of interactive technologies has inculcated more “participatory instincts” among youth,lv who now expect a high level of participation and control in their interactions with the world. For example, given the ease with which youth can discuss and organize around political issues on the Internet, they may find the slow, bureaucratic nature of parliamentary politics alienating. These skills, however, are rarely applicable to formal modes of politics, and instead facilitate grassroots organizing that satisfies their desire for accessibility, participation, agency and immediate results.
Although there are indications from other studies that Canadian youth are finding alternative means of political participation, there is also evidence that those youth engaged in different ways also tend to be the ones who vote, join political parties and engage in other traditional forms of political involvement. Elisabeth Gidengil and colleagues question the “optimistic assumption” that many youth are turning away from formal politics to participate in informal, community politics.lvi Instead, they argue that youth are “tuned-out” from all political life, lacking even the most basic political knowledge, including the names of party leaders. When examining youth voter turnout, Henry Milner distinguishes between two kinds of non-voters. The first are “politically informed individuals who reject voting in favour of some other form of activity they see as politically oriented and which they consider more meaningful.”lvii The second group, the much larger group, consists of those who “lack the information to adequately distinguish among the candidates and/or parties.”lviii Milner believes that Canadian youth simply lack sufficient political information to participate.
Capacities and Skills for Youth Civic Participation
Those people seeking to teach and encourage active, sustained and thoughtful civic engagement understand that students’ knowledge of democratic processes is of little use without the skills to put this knowledge into practice. Patricia Kubow argues as follows: “Those preparing to be teachers (as well as political leaders, national commissioners, community members, parents, and students at various levels of their educational development) need to think about what skills, values, and attributes are required for democratic existence now and in the future and how citizenship education can best be fostered in the formal educational setting.”lix Similarly, Caroline Beauvais, Lindsey McKay and Adam Seddon, in their Literature Review on Youth and Citizenship, observe a tendency to “teach about formal political institutions and people’s rights within the polity as opposed to teaching about the practice of citizenship.” They go on to note that citizenship education rarely actually teaches about political participation.lx
Given the evolving conception of civic literacy discussed earlier in this report, it is curious that little attention is given to the skill required to make political knowledge useful. For those teaching reading and writing, it is important to know that students not only can read or write specific words but also that they understand the usefulness of these words and know how to use them in sentences, in short, that they do read. It would seem no different for civic literacy. One US study of programs that