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Contesting Narratives, Locating Power (Lund Conference)

Youth and Citizenship in a Digital Age

[image from Huffington Post] [image from Huffington Post]

This revolutionary period provides an opportune moment for understanding emerging issues of youth and citizenship in a digital age. Global educational reforms have brought about a situation whereby schools are becoming more aligned with principles of the market and security and less so with ideals related to citizenship, democracy and equity. Whereas educational institutions used to be considered the main vehicles of citizenship formation that is no longer the case. As schools erode as sites of citizenship formation the question that begs to be asked is: “if children and youth are not learning citizenship dispositions in schools, where are they learning them?” The peer cultures operating in new communication spaces offer some answers to this pressing question.

This generation of youth are the most highly schooled and connected in the history of the region. They have been using their assets to fashion a culture of collective thinking and action on some of the big challenges of the times. They increasingly bypassing formal institutions and traditional forms of adult authority—whether educators, religious leaders, or political figures, to form alternative ideas about political, economic, and social reform. Youth are taking charge of their citizenship education and social needs in a very peer driven way. In fact, youth in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), particularly Iran, Tunisia, Egypt and Palestine, have proven to be at the global vanguard in the ways they use new communication tools and platforms at their disposal, whether cell phones, YouTube, Internet, Facetook, Twitter, for constructing an alternative media, forming groups (volunteer, political, cultural), expressing dissent, revolting, and organizing for change.

Our teaching about the Middle East must factor in transformations that have emerged as a result of changing youth politics and culture in a communications age. Not only should more attention be paid to how young people learn to be active citizens, but it is essential that we draw on youth lives and voices to understand processes of social and political economic change. Two areas where work on and with youth can be especially instructive outside of the mainstream political realm are economic development and education.

Youth have arisen as the main objects of an international development agendas of the Organisation for Economic co-Operation and Development (OECD) countries due to a combination of the youth bulge and the pressing issue of employment and economic growth. An obvious shortcoming of this mainstream neoliberal youth and development perspective is that youth are not consulted in any meaningful way about their own visions and needs for economic and political reform (though there are plenty of token platforms for ‘youth participation’). The revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt have emboldened youth to take more control of their political and economic futures. Research and thinking should be undertaken with youth to think through issues of economic issues of redistributive justice and opportunity. While it is fairly easy to know what is wrong with systems, it is far more challenging to build up viable alternatives. But in this historic moment the time is ripe to imagine and help build alternative, more equitable and just institutions.

Regarding education, a great challenge ahead is how schools—teachers, pupils, parents, policy makers—can respond to this window of opportunity for democratic reform. How can educational institutions shift away from an emphasis on markets and security and be reconfigured to mirror the inclusive and democratic spirit of the revolution? Research, scholarship and advocacy should be directed towards working on educational reform and imagining how schools can mirror some of the emancipatory aspects of the communication spaces. 

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