Citizenship Education for a Polarized Society

Originally posted on Huffington Post.

By Harry Boyte

In the Republican convention last week, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice struck a discordant note. As New York Times columnist David Brooks put it, “She put less emphasis on commerce and more on citizenship…The powerful words in her speech were not ‘I’ and ‘me’ [but] ‘we’ and us’ – citizens who emerge out of and exist as participants in a great national project.”

In a culture of polarized politics, quick fixes, and success defined as making money, how might citizenship become an ethos across the aisle, not an exception?

We need “a different kind of citizenship education,” more about creating civic identities as agents and architects of democracy than about knowing the branches of government or volunteering now and then.

To spread such education, we need colleges and universities to rejoin our shared civic life, to become “part of” communities, not “partners with” communities.

In recent years, a chorus of political and civic leaders have called for strengthened citizenship education. But their view is limited. In most efforts, reflected in new legislation strengthening high school “civics” in Florida and elsewhere, the main citizen role is voting, with a nod to voluntarism. Democracy is largely the work of government.

A different view of citizenship education for today’s polarized society emerges from Dorothy Cotton’s new book, If Your Back’s Not Bent, whose publication on September 4th Bill Muse and I noted in a recent posting. In the book, Cotton tells “the unknown story of the civil rights movement.”

Dorothy Cotton directed the Citizenship Education Program for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. An African American battling the terrible legacy of slavery, Cotton nonetheless shared the view of citizens as the foundational agents of a democratic society voiced by Thomas Jefferson, a slave owner as well as author of the Declaration of Independence. As Jefferson put it, “I know of no safe repository of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education.”

Benjamin Barber made the point succinctly, summing up arguments we both made, January 14, 1995,advising Bill Clinton on his State of the Union, in a Camp David meeting: “Democracy can survive inept governments. It can’t survive inept citizens.”

In a compelling mix of personal narrative, little known stories of the civil rights movement, and political philosophy, Cotton gives living testimony to the idea of everyday citizens as transformative agents of change. She tells how more than 8,000 people from the South, by and large African Americans with a handful of poor white, were trained, mainly at SCLC’s “Dorchester Center” in McIntosh Georgia, from 1960 to 1968. Participants came to think of themselves as active citizens, not victims.

They returned home to their communities and trained tens of thousands more, who in turn transformed southern communities, impacting the nation and the world.

The curriculum mixed skills of community organizing and consciousness-raising. “Once people accepted that they did not have to live as victims – the goal of CEP training – they changed how they saw and felt about themselves,” writes Cotton. She quotes Mrs. Topsy Eubanks, who described the transformation with vernacular eloquence: “The cobwebs commenced a-moving from my brain.”

People developed a view of government as “ours,” not “theirs.” And they developed a sense of new collective efficacy. “We moved away from thinking of ourselves as isolated and alone, and instead went out into the wider community with our work. Ultimately we were able to envision ‘community’ as including people very different from ourselves.”

The communities which sustained this spirit became sustaining local cultures of empowerment. We need such cultures today on a large scale. But for higher education to contribute at this crucial point in American history, is a challenge.

Tom Ehrlich, former president of Indiana University, a key leader in the movement for higher education to reclaim its public purposes, tells a story of Stanford University that illustrates the obstacles.

In the late 1920s and ’30s, Stanford freshman were required to take a year-long course called “Problems of Citizenship,” one-fourth of the first-year curriculum. It was based on the view that education for civic leadership should be a primary goal.

In 1928, Professor Edgar Robinson told students that “citizenship is the second calling of every man and woman. You will observe as we go forward that our constant endeavor will be to relate what we do and say to the facts of the world from which you came and in which all of you will live, and to correlate the various aspects of the modern scene, so that it will appear that citizenship is not a thing apart, something to be thought of only occasionally or left to the energies of a minority of our people, but that its proper understanding is at the very root of our daily life.”

Robinson reported some 60 other institutions had developed similar courses. He hoped that many others would follow.

So why did such education for civic leadership disappear from Stanford and elsewhere?

Ehrlich argues that after WW II, “disinterested, disengaged analysis became the dominant mode of academic inquiry, and quantitative methods became the primary tools of that analysis. Students were no longer encouraged to become politically engaged. They were to be observers, not participants.”

The culture of detachment has spread far beyond the walls of colleges and universities in ways that show the hidden power of higher education. Kettering Foundation research has shown that institutions such as local schools and nonprofits have lost their community roots, with an increasing focus on “client base” and “service delivery.”

In the nonpartisan “Reinventing Citizenship” project which I directed with the White House Domestic Policy Council from 1993 to 1995, prelude to our Camp David meeting, we analyzed the causes of the growing gap between lay citizens and government, and found that hostility to government can be traced in important ways to a parallel loss of civic roots. Abraham Lincoln’s government “of the people, by the people,” grounded in the life of communities, has given way to customer service. People have come to see government as “them,” not “us.” And citizenship has come to focus on knowledge of government or episodic good deeds, not identity and a way of life.

It will take far ranging change to turn around these dynamics. But resources for more transformative citizenship education are emerging in communities and colleges as earlier described. And the American Commonwealth Partnership, the new coalition of colleges and others committed to the public purposes of higher education and citizen-centered democracy, is developing strategies for integrating colleges and universities into the life of communities through initiatives such as “civic science.”

We need a new kind of transformative citizenship education for the polarized, quick fix society of the 21st century. This means, also recalling the great insight of Martin Luther King:

“We are tied together in the single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality.”

Harry Boyte is National Coordinator of the American Commonwealth Partnership, Director of the Center for Democracy and Citizenship at Augsburg College, and a Senior Fellow at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs.