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.
We sat in his office in the State Capitol. He laughed that he had “survived the session, and can look back at it with some humor.”
“The question, ‘what is the purpose of higher education?’ is profound. Higher education needs to be so much more than getting a credential. As a society we place an amazing emphasis on getting credentials. In many corporate settings the higher education degree is used as a sorting device in employee selection. Obviously we all know the degree is important but it should not be the sole determination of whether or not an individual will be a good employee or a good citizen.
“In the end, I believe the most important role of higher education is to prepare people to be life-long learners, to be immersed in life experiences, and to give back.
“I spoke to 300 young women at Girls’ State the other day. They were all high achievers. I’m sure most will be going to college. They will make A’s and so forth. I asked them, ‘What do you want your life to be remembered for? What do you want your legacy to be?’ These are questions that are not often asked. In many cases young people probably have not had the life experiences to think about the meaning of ‘success’ beyond academic success.
“When I think back on my high school class, the high achievers in academic terms weren’t necessarily those who achieved financial success or who gave back to their communities. A focus on achievement is good. Getting good grades is good, but not at the risk of producing individuals who may think in narrow terms. A cancer researcher maybe brilliant in terms of his or her ability to understand the workings of a living cell but may be less able in terms of human interaction and problem solving.
“We need to have a discussion in the legislature about the purpose of higher education.”
Harry Boyte is a National Coordinator of the American Commonwealth Partnership (ACP)
The article originally appeared on the National Issues Forums Institute’s website.
The people of Iowa are serious about the well-being of their young children. Their earnestness was shown this past week at Get Ready Iowa, a convergence in Iowa City of psychologists, early childhood development specialists, speech pathologists, P-12 administrators, policymakers, daycare providers, parents, and many others who shared a common concern: how to facilitate the healthy development of Iowa’s youngest. This included discussions on civic science, a signature initiative of the American Commonwealth Partnership.
Much of conference was dedicated to the latest, most innovative scientific findings in the field of early childhood development. But the uniqueness of the conference lay not just in the top-notch research expounded by scientists at various presentations; it was also evident from the composition of attendees.
By bringing together folks from all walks of life—scientists and laypeople, educators and parents, policymakers and citizens—Get Ready Iowa made a clear statement: improving early childhood development in the state will take all of us. The best scientific research needs to be coupled with the wisdom, experience, and power of the community if it wants to make a significant public impact.
This is the stance of civic science, that scientific research needs to be embedded in local communities, and that stance was translated into action on the fourth day of the conference, when about 25 Iowans took part in a round table discussion to exchange points of view on issues related to early childhood. The group included a state legislator, nonprofit leaders, concerned parents, daycare providers, school administrators, researchers, and many others. Facilitating the conversation were Harry Boyte of the Center for Democracy and Citizenship at Augsburg College and John Spencer of the Delta Center.
Because a project on civic science brings together people from a variety of backgrounds and disciplines, the day required a sort of “Organizing 101” that would provide tools and concepts important for collaboration. So Boyte, a long-time organizer, began the discussion in the morning by asking about people’s self-interests. Why were people there, anyway? The stories were diverse and heartfelt. One parent voiced the concern that access to resources for parents was inequitable. A daycare provider had an interest in expanding the conversation to include children ages 0-3, since most of the conversation around early childhood focuses on 3-5 year olds.
Concerns about the mental health of children, as well as issues affecting children with special needs, were also shared by people who alluded to personal experiences with such issues. The process thus unfolded in a way that opened up the agenda to include interests from a variety of people and angles.
A discussion on rule-breaking then ensued. Boyte asked people to share stories of instances when they “broke the rules” for the sake of education, the implication being that Iowans were “breaking the rules” by taking science out of the laboratory and into the community. A boy seeing Jurassic Park at age 5, a child who defied his parents to build an electric circuit, and finger painting in a strict private school were among the highlights. The stories both loosened people up and drove home the point that new ground was being broken.
The dialogue in the afternoon moved toward action steps, as group members began talking about assets, strategies, and challenges in furthering early childhood development. Group members spent a considerable amount of time highlighting and deliberatingIowa’s potential “civic institutions,” spaces where citizens could organize and work together on issues pertaining to young children. Small group discussions formed around several viable sites: the Iowa Children’s Museum, the communities of parents, schools, daycare centers, and theDeltaCenter. Participants then reported back to talk about the strengths, weaknesses, and action strategies for each institution. It was highlighted, for instance, that the Children’s Museum was accessible due to its convenient location (in the mall). Daycare providers were held up as deep sources of community knowledge. Interestingly, and fittingly, many of the weaknesses described underscored the need for greater collaboration among those at the table. Could researchers from the Delta Center bring their scientific know-how to daycare centers? Could parents find respite from their busy days at the Children’s Museum?
As the conference began to creep into the evening, and the sound of dance music in an adjacent ballroom started pounding (the conference was in the downtown Sheraton hotel), people were about to call it a day. But before everyone left, the conversation went around the table one more time, as people committed themselves to 1-2 concrete actions that could be done immediately. Ideas ranged from the re-tooling of Facebook pages to more service-learning projects for psychology students. People also shared their reflections on the day as a whole, and there was a general sense of enthusiasm around the table. Everyone was energized by the conversation and excited for the work ahead. They enjoyed the intimacy of the conversation and the opportunity to connect with others sharing a common cause. New feelings of agency were palpable, a fact acknowledged even by the group’s highly-respected scientists. People knew that something meaningful was starting to happen.
For more on Get Ready Iowa and the concept of civic science, check out this editorial from a local news publication.
Hunter Gordon is a graduate student at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs, University of Minnesota. He is also an organizer with the Center for Democracy and Citizenship in Minneapolis. In his spare time, Hunter likes to read about history and philosophy, run, and have one-to-ones with his baby daughter.
By Sarah M. Collier, PhD
I recently completed my doctorate in plant breeding and genetics. This is a field of science that revolves around better understanding how plants work at the most basic level, and then applying this understanding to enhancing plants’ suitability for human uses such as agriculture. It is a field well-suited to addressing, through research, some of the world’s most pressing challenges, including food security, environmental health, and the ultimate goal of agricultural systems that are truly sustainable in the long term. The importance of focusing the power of scientific inquiry on issues such as these cannot, in my opinion, be overstated.
However, over the course of my graduate training I have become increasingly aware that all of the well-designed, well-intentioned research in the world will not cause the changes we need to happen as fast as we need them to for the sustainability of global food systems. While science must provide a crucial foundation upon which the discussion for our course forward can be based, scientific research alone cannot alter the world, nor does it provide the only kind of important knowledge that needs to be part of the solution.
Knowledge that comes from balancing different interests and understanding power relationships, and knowledge that grows from traditions and life experience, are also of crucial importance. The efficient sculpting of scientific research into real-world applications and changes thus requires engagement and cooperation between not only scientists, but also between students, farmers, policy-makers, and everyone else in between. Agricultural research will only lead to improvements if it is both relevant to the farmers who would act upon it while also acceptable to consumers. Significant progress in agricultural sustainability depends on well-informed, respectful discourse and collaborative work between the scientific community, the agricultural industry, and the public at large. We must all take note and take action to address this challenge together.
As a postdoctoral associate at the University of Wisconsin I am happy to find myself working at the intersection of agricultural and civic sciences. As I strive in my own small way to bring agricultural research into alignment with needs and values of producer and consumer communities, I know that others are doing the same from many different positions around the common challenge of sustainability.
Sarah Collier is a postdoctoral research associate working in agricultural sustainability with the Jahn Group at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She holds a BSc in Botany from the University of Washington and a PhD in Plant Breeding from Cornell University, where she studied the functional mechanisms of plant disease resistance proteins. Her current focus is on animal agriculture sustainability in Wisconsin, with emphasis on the transition of large-scale research investments into on-farm applications.
By John P. Spencer, PhD
I am a basic scientist, and I absolutely adore scientific research. I love developing new theories, the thrill of new data, and making discoveries. I also relish the communal nature of scientific inquiry—I often tell people that I have the best set of students and colleagues in the world.
But a funny thing happened about 10 years ago—I discovered that what I do is relevant. I was at a local conference on child development, education, and intervention research feeling oddly out of place. After listening to talks all day, I found myself talking to a parent during one of the breaks. He was at the conference representing his local parent group. He also had a special needs child at home. I asked him my burning question from the day: how do you think children develop? He said, “No one has ever asked me that. I’m not really sure.” We had a great discussion. He told me wonderful stories about his daily interactions with his daughter. I told him about the fascinating discoveries researchers have made about how those daily, moment-by-moment interactions create development. In this exchange, a civic scientist was born.
I’m still discovering what ‘civic science’ means to me. And I’m fortunate to have colleagues at the world-class research center I direct—the Delta Center—who are joining in the discovery process. Although I’m not sure where this path will lead, I’m convinced that it’s time to unleash the relevance of science, and direct engagement with other citizens is a critical first step