Political reform begins with civic education

Around a month ago, the research center I direct hosted a symposium on political reform in Greece. We brought in a wide variety of distinguished practitioners, scholars and journalists to engage in a frank public conversation about how the Greece of tomorrow might appear.

We gave equal time to students and young professionals, however, and this is where the story gets interesting. Timely as the event may have been, it also brought to the fore a fundamental dilemma that is more acute now than ever before.

A high school senior, whom I shall call Anna, put the question more or less this way: ?Why should I stay in Greece and not pursue my studies and fortune abroad? How can I contribute to Greece?s future if the system is so in need of reform??

Should I stay or should I go? This is a perennial dilemma faced by Greeks for generations. Anna?s question had two distinctive subtexts, however.

First, if Anna goes abroad she may leave forever. What is there to return to?

If she does come back, Anna will face insidious social competition from those who stay behind and share the spoils, so to speak. With an aging population and chronic unemployment for young college graduates, especially women, she will have to rely more than ever on family networks or political patronage to reintegrate into local society.

In such circumstances it is difficult to imagine Anna, with her wits and cosmopolitan education, making her full contribution to Greek society on her merits and playing a productive role in the post-crisis political order.

In the meanwhile, she will have been gone when, arguably, Greece needs her most. Anna and her classmates sense this already. This is the second subtext of her query.

Young people like her have a thirst for constructive public service, which an affectation for apathy or disgust or anger or nihilism cannot conceal. I sense this every day in my work with college students from Greece, the Balkans and the US.

By the same token, however, they feel shut out by a system which either compels them to dependence or ignores them altogether, wrapping them in the cocoon of the political parties or pushing them out into the street, with all the perils this entails. If, as is the case, Anna happens to attend a private school, her efforts at community service, however well intentioned, may furthermore be resented and misrepresented as elitist and self-serving.

Why stay, if she is not wanted? Sauve qui peut.

We pay lip service to young people?s political socialization, expecting that they will someday vote and be good citizens. The fact is that youth here have too few characteristically postmodern ways in which to engage in public service, to prepare for life as responsible citizens on their own terms. They have even fewer places to turn for advice about what to do.

Anna?s question is therefore an ultimatum. Appreciate her efforts to make space for herself as a stakeholder, or pay the consequences. There is good news, however. Volunteerism seems actually to be on the rise among youth intent on protecting the environment or raising multicultural awareness.

To explore the potential of volunteerism in the Greek context, my center will host a student at Oxford who is president of Oxford Hub, a remarkable resource for charity and volunteering worldwide. Pockets of innovative activity exist elsewhere, too, such as Thessaloniki Allios, which has attracted attention from major international media [].

An entrepreneurial approach to civil society and public service can be a powerful antidote to the malaise gripping the younger generations in Greece. Political reform starts here.


* David A. Wisner is a professor and director of the Division of Humanities and Social Sciences at the American College of Thessaloniki as well as director of the Dukakis Chair in Public Policy.

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