Civic Self-Education Increases Active Civic Engagement; Video Games Detract
One of the major findings from ISI's 2008 civic literacy report involved other factors that either increased or decreased the overall civic knowledge of Americans. For example, ISI's research revealed that Americans who make habits of both reading about history and current events and also discussing those topics with family and friends for an average of fifteen hours per week found their civic knowledge increased by 7%, slightly more than the 6.9% gained from earning a college degree alone. In other words, civic self-education trumped an expensive college degree in terms of increasing civic literacy. ISI also discovered that any time spent per week watching news and movies at home, and talking on the telephone, actually detracted from overall civic literacy.
So, if civic self-education exerts a positive influence on civic knowledge, and electronic media has a negative influence, how might those patterns translate to the civic engagement sphere? A positive correlation already exists between greater civic knowledge and more active civic engagement; will the correlation between civic self-education and greater civic knowledge also emerge in the participation arena?
The table at right indicates that there is indeed a similar pattern. In the case of what ISI calls civic self-education (frequent reading and then discussion of history and current public affairs), both activities exert a statistically significant positive impact on active civic engagement. In fact, frequently discussing history and public affairs trails only greater civic knowledge in the magnitude of its positive influence on political participation. There does seem to be a straight line, then, between civic self-education and playing a more active role in the public life of your community, state, and nation. These empirical connections could not be more relevant, as the current Tea Party movement is certainly an outward manifestation of the apparent close connection between knowledge of America's history and institutions and tangible engagement in the political process. As one of the most significant grass-roots political movements in recent American history, the Tea Party's focus on both constitutional education and political engagement represents a kind of real-time experiment in the strength of this significant statistical relationship. It was Alexis de Tocqueville in the 1830s who first suggested that one of the great values in democratic participation was its educative function, “town meetings are to liberty what primary schools are to science; they bring it within the people's reach, they teach men how to use and how to enjoy it.” ISI's preliminary research in this area would seem to corroborate this Tocquevillian insight.
The table also reveals that greater age and higher income are also powerful positive influences promoting active civic engagement. It is a well-known fact that both age and income are connected to higher voter turnout, and so it is logical that this voting experience would also translate into greater participation in the more intensive forms of civic engagement identified by ISI.
Conversely, there also is little doubt that an over-consumption of certain electronic media may not be the best encouragement for informed and responsible citizenship. Specifically, when active civic engagement is analyzed as a collective measure (all seven forms of active civic engagement combined as one dependent variable), the playing of video games was found to discourage citizens from actively participating in the process. Playing video games often during the week also had a negative impact on voting itself. On the other hand, frequently viewing television news and documentaries had the opposite effect, exerting a positive influence on ISI's definition of active political engagement.
Finally, the mixed impact of religion on political participation also deserves mention. According to the research, respondents who indicated that they were Jewish or Christian were less likely to participate actively in politics, as defined by ISI's collective measure of engagement (they were particularly less inclined to publish a letter to the editor and to try to influence how someone else should vote). Nevertheless, if one indicated that they attended religious services more frequently than average, regardless of denomination, they were more likely to devote their time to active civic engagement. Specifically, attending services more often leads a believer to also attend political meetings more frequently, as well as work on a campaign, sign a petition, and contact a public official.
Overall, the fact that video games discourage, and civic self-education encourages, active civic engagement is cause for both concern and hope moving forward. Clearly, America's appetite for video games continues unabated, but for those looking for an antidote to the “vast civic wasteland” of the video remote, you do not have to look any further than the family kitchen table and a good history book.