Daniel Hart, a professor of childhood studies and psychology, as well as the faculty director of the Institute for Effective Education at Rutgers University–Camden


Daniel Hart, a professor of childhood studies and psychology, as well as the faculty director of the Institute for Effective Education at Rutgers University–Camden, is the coauthor of Renewing Democracy in Young America, which claims that young people can be civically engaged—and want to be.

Nick Romanenko

Young people today, particularly those of high school age, are often dismissed as indifferent to how the world around them works. But Daniel Hart, a professor of childhood studies and psychology, as well as the faculty director of the Institute for Effective Education at Rutgers University–Camden, feels differently. He has coauthored, with James Youniss, Renewing Democracy in Young America (Oxford University Press, 2018), which makes the resounding case that young people can be civically engaged, and want to be—if given the opportunity. And, Hart points out, it doesn’t have to take a tragedy like the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida to motivate them. Young people, too, want to see American democracy flourish, especially at a time when the public is questioning its future.

RUTGERS MAGAZINE: What drew you to youth development as a subject to research?

DANIEL HART: As an undergraduate, I had my first experience in research working with a group investigating the moral and social reasoning of juvenile and young adult offenders. Since then, I’ve been fascinated with understanding how young people reason about themselves and their social worlds, and the consequences of their thinking for shaping their adult lives.

RM: What did you and coauthor James Youniss believe you could add to the conversation about civic-mindedness among young people by writing Renewing Democracy in Young America?

DH: As developmental psychologists, we have studied teenagers and youth for our entire careers. We share an appreciation for what youth can contribute to the welfare of others. Contemporary descriptions of millennials as apathetic, self-absorbed, and detached from public life misdiagnose youth and their potential to heal the deep fissures in liberal democracies.   

RM: “Youth need not be dragged into civic life; under the right circumstances, they will flock to it and energize it.” As you wrote those words for the book, you couldn’t have anticipated the events surrounding the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

DH: No, but we know from history and our research that youth in every community can be galvanized to efforts to advance community welfare. My colleague Sue Altman and I, with funding from New Jersey Health Initiatives, are assisting 11 communities in New Jersey that have formed teams of youth and adults to tackle health problems that they’ve identified. It’s been deeply inspiring to observe. What youth need is the opportunity to synthesize idealism and action. The potential to recruit youth to community involvement is present in every community. It needn’t be founded on tragedy-inspired outrage and requires only genuine opportunity to unleash it.

RM: The student activism to promote meaningful gun-control legislation appears to be coming at a critical juncture in our democracy.

DH: In our view—shared with many other political observers and scholars—the future of liberal democracy is at genuine risk. Recent polling suggests that American confidence in a variety of democratic institutions has declined sharply. Youth, if provided with real opportunity, can help us restore public trust in democracy and draw our communities together. Young people are energized by ethnically diverse communities and will lead the way in this country in drawing strength, rather than division, from diversity.

RM: Only a handful of states require proficiency in civics and government as a condition of graduation. It seems incongruous with a vibrant democracy.

DH: James Youniss and I favor equipping young people with civic knowledge: the structures of the federal government, the ins and outs of state government, how their towns are governed. Requiring proficiency in civic knowledge for high school graduation makes a statement of value: preparing future citizens is a crucial function of schools. However, requiring that proficiency in civics seems to matter little for what students learn: research has shown these proficiency requirements are largely ineffective. And civic knowledge is only one component of civic development; students need to acquire skills, values, and especially identities of themselves as citizens. Traditional civics education is not especially effective at transmitting these latter qualities.

RM: Your research mentions the use of social media for facilitating student activism or civic awareness.

DH: Social media is important for understanding civic life, and there are opportunities to use it for boycotts, sharing of information, and some other purposes. However, there is very little evidence, to date, that social media can provide the structures necessary to unite and energize communities and societies. For the foreseeable future, civic opportunities will require that young people interact over sustained periods of time with adults and social institutions committed to civic welfare. Social media will not provide answers to the problems of contemporary democracy.

RM: One change that could jump-start young people’s civic engagement would be lowering the voting age to 16.

DH: Compared to young adults, teenagers know as much about their governments, are as interested in politics, contribute as much to community welfare, and can vote as responsibly. Wherever in the world the voting age has been lowered to 16, the effects have been neutral or positive. It is immoral to deny U.S. citizens fully capable of voting responsibly the right to do so. Moreover, letting young people vote will enrich civic education and connect them to their communities. 

RM: One advantage to lowering the voting age is that young people can act on strongly felt convictions while the issues are still important to them.

DH: It’s important to remember that youth share values with other members of their societies. Like older people, young people want things like democracy, law and order, Social Security, the environment, education. On some issues, yes, youth have on average different opinions than do older people. As citizens, their opinions ought to be heard and incorporated into civic life. For example, if young people are going to bear the burden of paying for Social Security (and young people are very supportive of Social Security), shouldn’t their voices about taxation be heard? Young people are fellow citizens—not aliens from another solar system with incomprehensible value systems.