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Student Government and Civics Lessons Make Teens Cynical. Here’s Why

Think that civics lessons for teens are the answer to unifying a divided nation? If only it were that simple.

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In 2010, Catalonia, the autonomous region in the northeast of Spain that houses Barcelona, was having a political flashpoint. Half the citizens wanted to secede from the country, half wanted to stay, and the Spanish government was having none of it. Protests and (mostly non-violent) clashes ensued. Dr. Edda Sant, a senior lecturer on Education Studies at Manchester Metropolitan University, was keeping an eye on the civil unrest, but she was looking at it through a very specific lens — the eyes of Catalonian teenagers. For a study she published in 2011, she polled students and teachers involved in a youth city council educational project about how it impacted their views of the conflicts, how much they participated, and how they viewed formal politics in a time when formal politics were failing. The short of it: The educated students’ trust in the political order decreased and their cynicism increased. The more they knew, the less hope they had. Furthermore, upon follow-up, Sant found that it did not reveal strong or direct connections between anticipated future political participation. In other words, teaching teens about the ins and outs of the political turmoil they live in can make them all the more jaded. 

For those of us living today in a divided nation — under the Brexit fever of the United Kingdom or the Trumpian divide of the United States — this does not seem to bode well for our kid’s political future. Not so fast, says Sant. She sees teens’ increased cynicism with a political order during trying times as a sign of intelligence, even hope. Teens are skeptical and with more education, they look for ways to right the systemic wrongs that fall outside of the normal political pathways. While Muy bien, la persona nacida durante el boom de natalidad de la posguerra, doesn’t quite have the same ring to it, as OK, Boomer, the sentiment is seemingly international. Fatherly spoke to Sant over the phone about political trust, education, and why the future of democracy might be found in your teen’s TikTok feed. 

If education decreases trust in the political system, how do you increase trust and participation in politics for teens living in times of political turmoil?

The question is, “Do we really want to increase trust in the system?” Political science research suggests that participation depends on trust, but do we need to uncritically trust? 

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Obviously, certain levels of trust are necessary to operate within any society or political system. We trust the system if we feel the system allows us to tell things that we think are important. We trust it if it allows alternative perspectives, and we trust the system if we think we can make a difference. 

Participation follows similar rules. If we think our participation will somehow make a difference. When we participate, we legitimize a system. We provide proof to say “the system is right.” We are voting, therefore we approve elections. 

So education may decrease the trust in the politics of the day, but not necessarily the political system?

A number of things around the world are somehow disengaging in traditional politics. I have colleagues here who are researching with young people around Europe and what they’re finding is that young people are participating, but not through traditional mechanisms. They are not doing much in terms of voting, but they are engaging in terms of other activities. 

In Catalonia, where I conducted research, there was a huge rise in the support of independence — about half of the population there want to be independent from Spain. This was higher in young people. You see that they didn’t feel represented in the Spanish system, so they were looking for an alternative way — to build something different that they could trust. 

So their feeling of being jaded with the system is a good thing?

One of the participants involved in policy-making and education in Catalonia offered me a key sentence here: “In the present system that we’re operating, I’m really glad that when young people are more educated they are more critical of the system because they are more aware of its problems.”

Here there is an example of this: As I was conducting my research in Spain, there was a moment where both major parties of Spain were supporting the politics of austerity from the European Union and economic organizations. So a lot of young people felt that they just couldn’t go against — regardless of how they voted, the outcome was the same

Something even worse happened in Greece. People there voted for a party that was against austerity. And then those measures of austerity were imposed anyway. When you explain this to young people — you educated them — of course, they become more critical or even cynical of the system. They say, “If I vote for A, and A does this, and if I vote for B, and B does this as well — what options do I have?” Education makes you more aware of the contradictions taking place. 

Do you think teenagers in times of political turmoil are more idealistic and hopeful and therefore think a system can change, or are they more cynical because of the times and, well, because they’re teenagers? 

I think it’s both. They’re more hopeful and idealistic about the possibilities available. But they’re probably more cynical about the way things work. They probably look for answers, not in the terms of reforming what’s there, but fully changing it. They’re looking for this utopia not for where they’d like to be, but in a direction that is possible. If they feel they can’t change the system from within, they want to change it from the outside. 

Does this cynicism extend to media and facts in general? What role does fake news play among a population that’s super reliant on social media?

Certainly the media — in the shape of the television or pamphlets or social media — has a strong impact on how young people see politics. I’ve done some research on social media and socialization and can say there’s a lot of hope for social media being incorporated into the political process. 

But education is needed. More teachers are sitting in classrooms and trying to analyze social media to help young people to navigate what’s a fake fact, what’s a political fact, and what’s an emotional interpretation of reality. 

This is especially important because young people are not just recipients of social media  — they are also producers. We’re seeing this with climate change and other teen-lead movements. They’re engaging with each other to organize themselves and they’re sophisticated. When I talk with young people in England about social media, they were clever and understood the weaknesses of social media. 

The Global Climate Strike was one of the biggest international teen-lead movements ever. Why did this one energize teens? Why not Brexit or Trump? 

It was a situation where young people were positioned against the adults in the sense that We are the ones who are living this reality. You are the ones not doing anything to change this reality. This is a unifying discourse for these young people who are so mobilized and I admire so much. That’s one side of the story.

The other side has to do with the fact that they kind of feel that traditional systems — nation-states — do not really work to solve these global issues. One country cannot solve global warming by itself. Therefore they are looking for an alt way to move forward on an agenda that crosses national boundaries. 

Do you think teen globalism, through social media, changes the way they think? What impact does this have practically speaking?

Some people researching political science are talking about political ideas as viruses, the way they spread and the movement that they have. Some countries and communities are more susceptible to these virus than others for whatever reason. So, yes, I do think that nowadays more teens are more globalized than other generations. 

I think there are still many communities that miss out on this —  that feel trapped. They hear about globalization but don’t feel part of that. One example: I’m done some research with some of my students about global citizenship. They see this idea as only for the elites and see themselves as being excluded from it — being trapped in Manchester City. So I think we need to be careful to see that all young people are globalized. More than previous generations, but not all of them. 

Political manipulation is talked about a lot. You can manipulate a teen more easily. Or so the thinking goes, because they aren’t as educated. Is this the case? 

My understanding is that sometimes what’s manipulation and what’s education is a bit of a blur. We educate our teens and children to believe in democratic values. But we are somehow socializing them. We are somehow manipulating them into democratic values. I think we’re right in doing so, but the border does blur. 

What I can tell to parents who worry about their children being manipulated is that it’s very hard to manipulate a teen, or anyone else. Each of us has connections with other communities. We have fuller interactions with others. If parents had a concern about a teacher manipulating their kid. Well, each teacher, some would say, unfortunately, have a very limited impact on the kid. The kid will have 20 more teachers at least. The kid will watch TV. They have friends. They have family. And it’s the sum of all of this that will educate the kid. 

I can see myself as a mother thinking ‘this teacher will have a political perspective that I don’t like him teaching my kid.’ I understand this as a parent. But as a researcher, I realize my kid will spend one-percent of his time with this teacher. 

When a full society points in the same direction — like Hitler’s Germany — that’s an exception. There, teachers, neighborhood, families, all point only in one direction. This is not what happens in most places, luckily enough. The combination of all the perspectives is what educates our children. 

Constitutional literacy is notoriously low among American adults. How does that play into a kid’s education?

Parents lead by example even if they don’t understand it. They’re still political actors or citizen who should have the same right even if they don’t understand it. They still should have a vote or say on how the constitution should be changed. Also, it’s important to note that participating is the same time as learning. Kids will learn by doing. I think that we sometimes try to differentiate the what and the how but they actually go together.