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  • US and THEM: Trust, democracy, and youth development

    Dr. Connie Flanagan
    Professor of Youth Civic Development
    Dept. of Agricultural and Extension Education
    Penn State University

    Social trust is the grease that makes democracies work. This lecture will focus on the role that youth development programs play in building social trust and promoting democracy. At a time when society seems consumed by social vigilance, we will see why such programs as CYFAR are a basis for civic hope.

    Dr. Constance Flanagan is a professor of youth civic development at Penn State University. Her program of work, "Adolescents and the social contract," concerns the factors that promote civic values and competencies in young people. She has investigated this theme in cross-national studies as well as in work with different racial and ethnic groups in the United States. She is just beginning a longitudinal study of peer loyalty, trust, and social responsibility as it relates to teens' views about health as a public or private issue and to their inclinations to intervene to prevent harm to one another. Flanagan is a William T. Grant Faculty Scholar and a member of the MacArthur Network on the Transition to Adulthood and Public Policy and co-chairs the Society for Research in Child Development's Committee on Public Policy and Public Information.

    A citizen is, most simply, a member of a political community, entitled to whatever prerogatives and encumbered with whatever responsibilities are attached to membership.
    Walzer, Citizenship 1989, p. 211

    Political socialization refers to the various processes whereby new generations become full members of polities. Theories in this tradition from the 1950's argued that young children develop an affection and loyalty to their country because they believed in the benevolence of their elected leaders (Easton & Dennis, 1969), that is, they trusted that those leaders acted with their best interests in mind. However, research in the wake of Watergate indicates that children's and adolescents' support for leaders is not unconditional. It can be undermined when those leaders abrogate the civic trust (Dennis & Webster, 1975).

    In our program of research we have argued that young people have few opportunities to interact with elected leaders. In contrast to these rather distal authorities, we have argued that it is in everyday encounters with others (fellow citizens of all ages) in their communities that new generations develop a feeling of affection for their communities and a sense of obligation to the common good of those communities (Flanagan & Faison, 2001).

    A program like CYFAR is an excellent example in this regard. It extends the circle of social inclusion to groups of youth and their families who are often marginalized from the mainstream. In so doing it enables young people to understand first-hand the meaning of 'membership' in a political community outlined in Walzer's definition. Involvement in a CYFAR programs sends a message to young people that 'they belong, they matter, their opinion counts in issues that affect them'.

    This sense of mattering and feeling connected to others in their communities has been identified in national studies as a key factor in protecting youth from a range of risky behaviors (Resnick et al., 1997). Similarly, a 2001 report from the National Academy of Sciences finds that community-based youth organizations such as 4-H and CYFAR promote healthy adolescent development by providing young people with opportunities to belong, to 'matter', and to build skills in a context of supportive relationships (Eccles & Gootman, 2001). But these feelings of membership and connection to community institutions are not only good for individuals. They also strengthen democracy - by fostering social trust and responsibility to a common good in their members (Putnam, 2000). Students' feelings of community and solidarity with others are associated with higher levels of civic understanding and commitment to public interest goals in studies in the United States (Conover & Searing, 2000) and cross nationally (Flanagan, Bowes, Jonsson, Csapo, & Sheblanova, 1998).

    Furthermore, these early experiences of membership and connection to organizations have a long term civic pay off. Studies of adults find that, with the exception of sports, participation in non-formal community youth groups and extracurricular activities at school is associated with engagement in civic associations and political affairs in adulthood (Van Horn, Flanagan, & Willits, 2002; Verba, Schlozman, & Brady, 1995; Youniss, McLellan, & Yates, 1997). Although research tells us that youth involvement in non-formal organizations is related to civic engagement in adulthood, we know less about why. I will argue that one explanation is the critical role that engagement in non-formal youth groups plays in the development of social trust.

    Tolerance and Trust: Social trust taps a general view of humanity (the generalized 'other' or what I have termed THEM in the title of my talk) as either fair, helpful, and trustworthy or out for their own advantage as the following three survey items which are typically used to tap this construct suggest:

    • Generally speaking, would you say that most people can be trusted or that you can't be too careful in dealing with people?
    • Would you say that most of the time people try to be helpful or that they are mostly just looking out for themselves?
    • Do you think that most people would try to take advantage of you if they got a chance or would they try to be fair?
    Concerns have been raised of late that the United States may be experiencing a deficit of trust. These concerns are based on declining levels of trust uncovered in national surveys, declines that are particularly marked in younger generations. Analyses of the General Social Survey indicate that the generation gap in beliefs that "most people are trustworthy, fair, and helpful" grew between 1985 and 1997 due to precipitous declines in such beliefs among the youngest cohorts (Smith, 2000). Like other adults today, the younger generation (i.e., 18 - 25 year olds) has less confidence in institutions such as the government or the press. But, in addition, when compared to contemporary adults, the young are more cynical about human nature as well (Smith, 2000).

    The role of group experiences in the development of social trust In the remainder of this presentation I will draw from research to argue that youth participation in community based organizations such as CYFAR redresses these trends by building social trust in younger generations. We know from research with adults that there is a reciprocal relationship between levels of trust and civic engagement, i.e., higher levels of trust are related to civic engagement and the disposition to trust others is increased by such engagement (Putnam, 2000). From a youth perspective there are two overarching reasons why social trust develops as a result of engagement in community based organizations.

    The first is captured by contrasting the experience of social isolation with the experience of social connectedness. To illustrate my point, I refer you to the cover of TIME magazine of January 23, 2002 in the wake of the Enron scandal. The cover shows an infant and the caption reads, "So many choices and no one to trust. In today's world, You're on your own, baby" with questions surrounding the infant, "Can I trust my HMO? Can I count on my broker?"

    We need not look far to find a rationale for mistrust. There is no question that some 'others' are out for their own advantage and that social vigilance is an important safeguard. However, in the absence of regular contact with others who can be trusted (and this indeed is most others), all that a social isolate has to work with are the negative views of humanity in the news and on entertainment TV. We know that both civic engagement and social trust are lower among adults who are social isolates and spend a lot of time watching television (Brehm & Rahn, 1997; Verba et al., 1995). In addition, from time use studies we know that teenagers who are not involved in some type of organization are likely to spend significant amounts of their time alone, primarily watching entertainment TV (Larson, 2001). And prime time TV of late seems to have been taken over by a social Darwinian survival of the fittest image of humanity. Between contestants competing to beat one another to make a million or taking advantage of one another to survive on reality TV shows, one wonders whether there are any 'others' out there worthy of our trust.

    However, in projects such as those which CYFAR organizes, youth who would otherwise have only stereotypical images of 'most others', have a chance to develop a sense of solidarity with others in their community. That identification is the foundation for their affection for the polity. These experiences of group membership are the basis for developing social trust. In our studies, we have found that, compared to youth who are not involved in any community clubs or extracurricular activities at school, adolescents who are involved in at least one club have higher levels of social trust (Flanagan, Gill, & Gallay, in press). Compared to their uninvolved peers, they are more likely to say that 'most people' in their community are benevolent (they are 'there' for youth when needed, care about making their communities a good place to live, can be counted on, welcome newcomers, and pull together to solve problems). In addition, youths' images of the police (while lower in general than their images of 'most others' in their communities) are more positive if the young people are engaged in some sort of group or organization. Compared to social isolates, those youth who are involved in at least one club are more likely to feel that the police are helpful and mete out justice fairly.

    We have explained these results by contrasting stereotypical image of humanity (i.e., those found on entertainment TV) with the image that evolves as a result of encounters with real people (as a result of being involved in groups such as CYFAR projects). The latter, according to our data, is more likely to be a benevolent image of 'others' as being generally fair, helpful, and not out for their own advantage.

    But there is a second reason why youth organizations such as CYFAR play a key role in the development of social trust in the younger generation. This has to do with their role in exposing youth to diversity in their community, to 'others' whom they would otherwise not encounter.

    John Dewey (1916), who was a proponent of experiential learning and non-formal education, noted that groups are more likely to be democratic if a) the interests of the members are diverse and b) the group was not isolationist but rather interacted with others outside the group. In a similar vein, Elshtain (1995) reminds us that democracies depend on citizens with democratic who are prepared to work with those who are different from themselves towards shared ends.

    Because many youth groups are interest based, it is likely that their membership is rather homogeneous. If young people are going to develop democratic dispositions, it is important that youth serving organizations build in opportunities for young people to interact with others who are different from themselves. The increasing trends of youth engagement in community service are a positive sign in this regard. Community service is one of the few opportunities young people have to interact with others who are different from themselves, to see the world from these others' perspectives.

    In our studies we have found that engagement in service (and as Youniss and his colleagues have emphasized, in service with people who have some kind of need in contrast to functionary service) can be an opportunity for developing social trust (Flanagan, Gill, & Gallay, in press). Compared to social isolates and to youth who are engaged in clubs but not in service, those who have done service for others in their communities have higher levels of social trust. Our explanation is that, by face to face encounters with 'others' one would normally not encounter, 'others' for whom one might hold a group stereotype, real encounters with members of those groups breaks down stereotypes. One learns, as one young person in our studies put it, 'those people aren't so bad'.

    An ethic of service is common to most community youth organizations and is the kind of practice that makes real the principles embodied in a pledge such as that of the 4-H organization - service to my club, my community, and my world. When programs are well conceived, service can move young people beyond the confines of their world, expose them to the needs of the larger community and at the same time, enable communities to see youth as a resource rather than a liability. But these outcomes are not inevitable. Organizations can maximize the civic learning potential of service projects by making sure that the experience is not isolated but instead integral to both the lives of the youth and their communities. In other words, service should not be random acts of kindness. Rather, it should be a means whereby young people can form a sustained connection to their communities. Extant research on service learning suggests some key principles that can maximize the civic potential of such programs (Billig, 2000). These include meaningful (rather than busy work) activities, performed by and reflected on by groups rather than privately. The collective nature of the group reflection makes the content of the work and the community issue it addresses a public discussion. It raises service which could be a private act of charity to a level of public discourse.

    In the end, trusting others is a decision we make based on our accumulated experience but it is a choice, not a certainty. As Lummis (2001) notes in his chapter on trust as a democratic virtue,

    Trust and trustworthiness were invented as a way of dealing with
    the uncertainties of human beings who are free.
    Democratic faith is the decision to believe in what people can be
    on the basis of what they are sometimes.
    None of this has been proved, neither has it been disproved.
    One is free to believe either way.


    Billig, S. H. (2000). Research on K-12 school based service learning: The evidence builds. Phi Delta Kappan, May, 658-664.

    Brehm, & Rahn, W. (1997). Individual-level evidence for the causes and consequences of social capital. American Journal of Political Science, 41, 999-1023.Easton, D., & Dennis, J. (1969). Children in the political system. New York: McGraw Hill.

    Conover, P.J., & Searing, D.D. (2000). A political socialization perspective: In L.M. McDonnell, P.M. Timpane, & R. Benjamin, (Eds.), Rediscovering the democratic purposes of education. Lawrence, KA: University Press of Kansas.

    Dennis, J., & Webster, C. (1975). Children's images of the president and of government in 1962 and 1974. American Politics Quarterly, 3(4), 386-405.

    Eccles, J. S., & Gootman, J.A. (2001) Community Programs to Promote Youth Development.. National Research Council and Institute of Medicine Committee on Community-Level Programs for Youth. Board on Children, Youth, and Families, Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.

    Dewey, J. (1916). Democracy and education: An introduction to the philosophy of education. New York: The Free Press.

    Elshtain, J. B. (1995). Democracy on trial. New York: Basic Books.

    Flanagan, C., Bowes, J., Jonsson, B., Csapo, B., & Sheblanova, E. (1998). Ties that bind: Correlates of adolescents' civic commitments in seven countries. Journal of Social Issues, 54 (3), 457 - 475.

    Flanagan , C. A. & Faison, N. (2001). Youth civic development: Implications of research for social policy and programs. Social Policy Report, Vol. XV (1). Ann Arbor, MI: Society for Research in Child Development.

    Flanagan, C.A., Gill, S., & Gallay, L.S. (in press). Social participation and social trust in adolescence: The importance of heterogeneous encounters. In A. Omoto, (Ed.), Social participation in processes of community change and social action. Nineteenth volume in the Claremont series on Applied Social Psychology.

    Flanagan, C., & Van Horn, B. (2001). Youth civic engagement: Membership and mattering in local communities. Focus. Davis, CA: 4-H Center for Youth Development, University of California.

    Hart, D., Atkins, R., & Ford, D. (1998). Urban America as a context for the development of moral identity in adolescence. Journal of Social Issues, 54 (3), 513-530.

    Larson, W.R. (2001). How U.S. children and adolescents spend time. Current directions in psychological science, 10 (5), 160-164.

    Lummis, C.D, (1996). The democratic virtues. In C.D. Lummis, Radical democracy (pp. 143-157). Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press.

    Putnam, R.D. (2000). Bowling Alone: The collapse and revival of American community. NY: Simon & Schuster.

    Resnick, M.D., Bearman, P.S., Blum, R.W., Bauman, K.E., Harris, K.M., Jones, J., et al. (1997). Protecting adolescents from harm: Findings from the National Longitudinal Study on Adolescent Health. JAMA, 278 (10), 823-832.

    Van Horn, B., Flanagan, C.A., & Willits, F.K. (2002). Youth, family and club experiences and adult civic engagement. Manuscript submitted for publication.

    Verba, S., Schlozman, K.L., & Brady, H.E. (1995). Voice and equality: Civic voluntarism in American politics. Cambridge Harvard University Press.

    Yates, M., & Youniss, J. (1997). Community service and political-moral identity in adolescents. Journal of Research on Adolescence, 6, 271-284.

    Youniss, J., McLellan, J.A., & Yates, M. (1997). What we know about engendering civic identity. American Behavioral Scientist, 40, 620-631.

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