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The relationships between youth activism, engagement and education are vitally important in the current context, in which the pressures of globalisation and populism are emerging from and fuelling a volatile social and political environment. A recently completed international networking project, funded by the Leverhulme Trust, has explored ideas, issues and practices in this field.

There are well-established debates around the role of education. For some there is a virtuous circle between education and engagement. Well-qualified people are more likely than others to understand and play a constructive role in democratic societies, and, outside school, people will continue to learn (see for example, Almond & Verba, 1989; Bennet & Segerberg, 2012). However, for others the picture is not so positive. If schools and individual teachers insist that students should become involved in particular causes for specific purposes, where do we need to draw the line? When would we suggest that indoctrination is being attempted (Curren, 2008)? And what happens when those young people become actively involved in the ‘real’ world beyond school? Is it possible that education is the last thing on the minds of most activists (Hicks, 2019)?

In our project, we produced extensive literature reviews, held seminars, organised academic conferences and public events and published articles for academics and exemplar material for professionals. We focussed on six countries: Australia, Canada, England, Hungary, Lebanon and Singapore. These countries did not represent simplistic types, but allowed us to explore a wide range of perspectives regarding post-colonialism, democracy, socialism and so on.

Broadly, we argue that education and engagement may be characterised through an elaboration of two types of relational capacities. The first is societal, in that it involves capacities that are about how youth understand and relate to their communities. This is largely a vertical relationship highlighting citizen-to-state, and involves an understanding of context and meaning-making. Knowledge is vital, but we argue for the need to go beyond teachers providing simplistic political messages, information about civics structures and arguing about ‘issues’. Instead, we argue for a conceptual framework and a situational approach. In addition to knowledge of political processes, central elements of contextual understanding include an awareness of key historical and sociopolitical factors, the presence of ongoing and new social injustices (including the varied means of redressing these), understanding one’s own contexts and appreciating the contexts of others.

We wish to educate by developing an appreciation and appraisal of key salient features of a given situation, on the basis of which young people decide whether to act (or, indeed, not to act), in which ways to act, and why. This allows for a form of education that promotes understanding, and does so in action-related ways that start from where young people are, their lives, their interests and their possibilities. It allows for motivational content in which there is dynamic meaning-making. We perceive the emergence of a new political subjectivity, characterised as reflexive individualism (distinct from neoliberal conceptualisations of individualism). Through our work we have identified new paradigms that offer innovative ways of thinking about how citizenship is understood outside of western contexts.

‘We wish to recognise the vital significance of caring for each other, in ways that recognise structural inequalities as well as more and less appropriate forms of justice-related group and individual behaviours.’

We also emphasise the interpersonal (that is, those largely horizontal, citizen-to-citizen) capacities that are about how youth understand and relate to other people. This involves working with others (not on them or for them, for example). We do not wish to promote a form of engagement that relies excessively on moralising, or on justice that is defined principally by reference to law. We wish to recognise the vital significance of caring for each other, and wish to do so in ways that recognise structural inequalities as well as more and less appropriate forms of justice-related group and individual behaviours.

A fundamental and recurring aspect of our activities has been the importance placed on reflexivity. Broadly speaking, reflexivity refers to the examination of one’s own feelings, motivations, actions and positionality, and how these can and do influence actions and others around us. Our argument is that it makes sense to speak of reflexive individuals, groups and communities.

The above ideas and issues have been highlighted in our many seminars, conferences and public events, and are shown in more detail on our web pages.


Almond, S. & Verba, G. (1989). The Civic Culture: Political Attitudes and Democracy in Five Nations. London: SAGE. (Original work published 1963.)

Bennett, W. L. & Segerberg, A. (2012). The Logic of Connective Action. Information, Communication & Society, 15(5), 739–768.

Curren, R. (2008). Indoctrination. In G. McCulloch & D. Crook (Eds.), Routledge International Encyclopedia of Education (pp. 310–311). New York: Routledge.

Hicks, S. (2019, March 20). Why Postmoderns Train – Not Educate – Activists (blog). The James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal. Retrieved from