Participatory Culture and Civic Engagement: Interview with Henry Jenkins, Part III

Tuesday, January 04, 2011 at 6:20 am

This post is the first in a series of interviews highlighting leaders in the field of New Learning (what we call “NLI at Inquiry”). A few weeks ago, we interviewed USC professor Henry Jenkins about his research, trends, and his thoughts on the future of civic engagement in education. Because Professor Jenkins answered our questions so generously and thoughtfully, we separated the interview into three parts. In Part III, he answers questions about the future of civic engagement.

Professor Jenkins, how do you see trends of civic engagement changing in the future for young people?

To be clear, my concept of participatory culture is a relative one. It describes some aspects of the lives of some portion of American young people. We do not live in a fully realized participatory culture; we live in a culture which is more participatory now than it was ten years ago. We still have many battles to fight in order to make it possible for a broader and more diverse array of young people to meaningfully participate in the emerging media landscape, and we have even bigger battles to fight before more young people can move from the kinds of cultural participation and social engagements offered online to a richer, more robust political participation and civic engagement.

Talking about participatory culture helps us to identify what we are fighting for, and what we are finding in studying these new kinds of political organizations will help us to identify new forms of political participation which might open up the public sphere to more potential participants. Part of what we are struggling against is the participation gap — the unequal distribution of the skills and knowledge, the sense of empowerment, which motivates civic participation. What we are observing suggests that these alternative tactics may help young people who may not have seen themselves as political before find their voice as political agents.

If it were up to you, what would the “perfect” school look like? How would the school use digital and social media to meet the needs of its students?

To me, the perfect school would, like the ideal online community, offer many potential ways of contributing and participating. It would value the full range of young people’s knowledge, intellectual capacities, and creative abilities. It would bridge between what takes place in the classroom and the world beyond the classroom in ways which allow for a more integrated learning ecology and which will enable people to develop a sense that they can make a difference in the world.

Digital and social media are simply one set of tools which can be used to achieve these goals. They are not magically agents that transform bad schools into good. If new media is deployed without understanding and inspiration, then it can simply replicate the most deadening practices of traditional education. If you take a test on a computer, it is still a test. If you make a podcast rather than a book report, it may still be a book report by another name. On the other hand, if we embrace collaboration and appropriation in compelling ways, then it may not matter if they are being conducted using an online forum, a virtual world, or simply a group of kids talking face to face. If we encourage kids to think about themselves and the world through remixing existing media content, then it may not matter if they are doing so with a joystick or a pencil. If we encourage them to read closely and creatively, it may not matter whether they have a mouse or a book in their hands, and my ideal would be to raise a generation that is equally comfortable with books and iPads as long as they are learning to ask critical questions as they read.

In the future, how do we see ourselves influencing young people to be more civically engaged in the classroom?

We are still trying to identify best practices from the new kinds of activist groups we are studying which might be usefully deployed in changing how young people think about the political process. But, there are things we know about civic education through many years of established research.

First, civic education should not be marginalized in schools, since it is one of the major factors which can change how young people understand themselves as political agents.

Second, civic education works best when young people are free to engage in debates and discussions about real world political issues rather than dealing with the operations of the government in the abstract. Right now, schools are terrified of anything which may be controversial and as a result, they often run away from the kinds of open political debates which were part of the civic educations of previous generations. The effective use of digital tools allows us to bring authentic materials into the classroom, including providing access to real world political players as potential guest speakers in our classes.

Third, civic classes may matter little if the school models a repressive political system rather than respecting the political rights of students and teachers, encouraging them to voice their concern, and granting them some material impact on the policies that impact them. And again, the research suggests that many schools do none of these things, encouraging students to think about civics as a set of ideals which are not honored in practice at even the most local level. Censoring the school newspaper, blocking YouTube, refusing to respect the student government give young people the wrong message about their place within a more democratic society. The online world often allows young people a much greater sense of empowerment (both as a fantasy and as a reality) as they often can produce and share media openly with others, as they can exert power over the management of virtual worlds, as they can form alliances with other young people through social networking sites, and as they can take politically meaningful actions which may be closed to them in their face-to-face school environment.

So, to return to your initial point, clicking a "like" button on Facebook may not be the most meaningful political act ever imagined, but it is often much more meaningful than anything young people are allowed to do in schools as they are currently constituted.

Special thanks

We’d like to extend a special thanks to Professor Henry Jenkins for providing such thoughtful comments.

Additional Resources on Professor Jenkins’ work:



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