Linda Herrera, “Youth and Citizenship in the Digital Age: A View from Egypt.” Harvard Educational Review (Fall 2012).
Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this article?
Linda Herrera (LH): Schools once served as temples of citizenship education, but this is no longer the case. I came to the realization of the diminished role of schooling in the lives of young Egyptians during a visit to a public high school in 2006. I arrived at a school in the Delta in the middle of the day to interview teachers about curriculum reforms. What I found was a school populated by the teaching and administrative staff but without students! It turned out that with end of year exams approaching in two months, students did not want to “waste time” at school; they preferred to study at home, in private lessons, and at for-profit exam preparation centers. I asked myself, “If students were disengaging from the school, how were they learning citizenship dispositions? Who was ‘educating the nation’?” These questions led me on a new trajectory of research towards youth learning in the information age.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the article address?
LH: This article traces five stages of generational change relating to the communications opening that began in the 1990s. It argues that while the bulk of theorizing on the “net generation” or “e-generation” comes out of North America and Europe, fully understanding the generational shifts taking place in the digital age requires a more inclusive lens. The Middle East and North Africa (MENA) provides an ideal vantage point to understand the intersections between communications, generations, and citizenship. In this article, I ask how members of this generation, who have been able to trigger revolt, might collectively shape the kind of sustained democratic societies to which they aspire. How can formal and non-formal education address the pressing needs of a generation that finds itself politically and economically marginalized but digitally empowered?
J: How does this work connect to and/or depart from your previous research and writing?
LH: Some of the big questions that informed my previous work had to do with youth and power, culture and globalization, the politics of international development, and the universal pursuit of freedom; these all remain integral to this work. Where I depart in this research is that I move outside of formal schools and universities into youth communication spaces. I also draw theoretically on the sociology of generations, which is distinct from the sociology of youth and the anthropology of education.
J: What methodologies did you use in your research towards this article?
LH: I conducted biographical research with Egyptian youth in the sixteen to thirty age-range. In particular, I drew on a methodology of learning and communication biographies, which are principally concerned with how, in a period of advanced globalization, individuals learn, socialize, and “do politics” both inside and outside of formal institutions.
J: Who do you hope will read this article, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
LH: I hope this article will speak to three groups of people, starting with young citizens who are involved in various freedom struggles, whether struggles against political oppression or economic marginalization, in the MENA and beyond. Second, I hope it will resonate with educators who are grappling with new models of learning and teaching in the digital age. And third, I hope it will be of interest to people interested in the Arab uprisings and will contribute to an understanding about the relationship between youth cultural politics and communications change. There is a need to move the conversation away from uncritical postulations about the causality between social media and liberation or democracy, and towards the more complicated questions of power and counterpower.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
LH: I am co-authoring a book with a former student from Egypt who works in the high tech industry, on the complex role of social media, especially Facebook, in the lead up to the Egyptian revolution. We are exploring questions relating to how power and counterpower operate in the age of social media. The book will be published by Verso. I’m also working on a co-edited volume on youth and citizenship in the digital age in the broader Middle East and North Africa, which comes out of a workshop of the Mediterranean Meetings of the European University Institute.
Excerpt from “Youth and Citizenship in the Digital Age: A View from Egypt”
To fully understand the rise of an active generation requires moving outside North America and Europe, where the bulk of research and theorizing about generations has occurred. A more inclusive global lens should reach to societies where high proportions of wired youth live under conditions of political repression and economic exclusion, where the stakes for change are at their most pressing. The Middle East and North Africa (MENA), characterized by authoritarian regimes, surging youth populations, and escalating rates of both youth connectivity and unemployment, provides an ideal vantage point to understand generations, justice, and power in the digital age.
Overall, this research shows that “ordinary” youth in Egypt and much of the region have been learning culture, forming a generational consciousness, and more actively engaging in politics away from schools and adult authority figures. In the process they have been gaining a greater awareness of their place in the world and experimenting with ways of challenging the status quo.
Egypt’s wired revolutionary generation that emerged on the world stage following the January 25 Revolution contributed in no small measure to the success of the first stage of the revolution, namely the toppling of President Hosni Mubarak. But like their generational counterparts engaged in various struggles throughout the Middle East and North Africa, Europe, sub-Saharan Africa, and the United States, young Egyptians grappled with questions about how to move forward.
Egypt’s young cyber citizens have been crowded out of the power game and are now struggling to find ways to more deeply dismantle and penetrate the old power structure. For all the dexterity and creativity they have shown in horizontal organizing, persistent civil disobedience, and networking and mobilizing across lines of difference—ideological, religious, class, gender, and otherwise—citizens of Egypt’s wired generation have exhibited serious limitations when it comes to strategizing for the long term in ways that allow them to achieve their vision of a good society. This generation of young Egyptians faces debilitating obstacles resulting from the entrenchment of old power structures, the growing sophistication of surveillance systems, and the uncertainty that comes with long-term economic insecurity.
The democratic movements of Egypt’s wired generation have yet to develop an aptitude for planning over the long term; exploiting educational, economic, and political resources; and cultivating strategic leadership. At this critical juncture, it is important to consider how to best support citizens of Egypt’s wired generation in their pursuit of deep democracy by developing educational systems—informally and formally—that provide the conceptual, methodological, and critical tools necessary to understand how power and counterpower operate. In the absence of critical and collaborative educational endeavors, the fear is that a dreaded counterrevolution, with its regressive and antidemocratic tendencies, may very well prevail.
[Excerpted from Linda Herrera, “Youth and Citizenship in the Digital Age: A View from Egypt,” by permission of the author and Harvard Educational Review. © 2012 President and Fellows of Harvard College. For more information, or to access the full issue, please click here.]