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A response to Jim Skillen -- Civic co-creation and civic science

Jim Skillen’s second essay moves the conversation forward. I appreciate his questions about what I mean by “citizen” and his probing the sufficiency of “technocracy” to diagnose civic erosion. In the following I elaborate the meaning of citizen in the public work framework -- the idea of citizens as co-creators -- giving a short genealogy. I also point to common ground: We need to dethrone the default positivism – the culture of detachment from a common civic life -- which has taken hold in professional systems and institutions across all modern societies. “Civic science,” a concept based on citizens (including scientists understanding themselves as citizens) as co-creators, is a workable alternative.

An ancient idea of the citizen

“When men know they are working on what belongs to them, they work with far greater eagerness and diligence. They learn to love the land cultivated by their own hands."                                                 

                                   Pope Leo XIII, Rerum Novarum, 1891

What do I mean by “citizen”? This is an important question which merits an extended answer.

As I described in the second essay, America’s political culture took shape before the birth of the nation, growing from productive labors of settlers who built congregations, schools, colleges, bridges and many other common resources including government bodies themselves. This generated a sense of citizens as co-creators of a common life as well as politics as the everyday work with others of different views and interests to make such a life, conveyed by the idea of "productive citizenship." The everyday, co-creative politics of communities was noted by the French observer Alexis de Tocqueville in his travels across America. I learned this history while working to develop the concept of citizen as co-creator.  Here I describe three other influences.

The freedom movement

As mentioned before, when I was a young man I was schooled by citizenship schools in the freedom movement. These prepared people to fight for “first class citizenship” across the South. They also gave people skills to build local communities, civic construction, and conveyed the nonviolent philosophy of seeing often hidden potentials even in one's enemies, what can be called public love.  People debated what citizen meant. A rough consensus usually emerged: citizenship wasn’t mainly legal status, though all agreed on the importance of full civil and voting rights for black people. The citizen is someone who solves problems, takes responsibility for building better communities, and spreads democracy as a way of life. This is conveyed in the song, “We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.”

The idea had old roots in democratic movements which claimed people’s right to full participation on the basis of “building America.”  Since the New Deal emphasis for those concerned about social justice has shifted from respect for work and workers to pity for the marginalized and redistributive justice through the state. A “mass politics” that creates a much more state-centered view with citizens as voters and consumers is the result. 

Early on in the youth civic education and empowerment initiative Public Achievement we found it important to conceive young people as “citizens today,” who can help to build their schools and neighborhoods, not simply “citizens in preparation” to vote. We summarized this with the idea of citizens as co-creators, different than voters and volunteers. This view turned out to be powerfully motivating not only in the US but around the world. Two other ways of thinking about “citizens as co-creators” also emerged.

Religious thought

The main incubator of Public Achievement was St. Bernard’s Elementary School in St. Paul, Minnesota. I soon realized that the Catholic social teachings contributed a great deal to the school’s vitality. The opening quote from Pope Leo XIII’s 1891 encyclical, Rerum Novarum, makes the point: what one owns and works one also loves.

Pope Francis elaborated. "Tilling the garden of the world refers to cultivating, ploughing and working.” In his Latin American trip in July 2015, Pope Francis in a speech to the Pontifical Catholic University of Ecuador expanded on this point. He stressed the intricate tie between care for the world and co-creation of the world. “God does not only give us life,” he said. God also “gives human beings a task . . . to be a part of [God’s] creative work. . . . ‘Cultivate it! I am giving you seeds, soil, water, and sun. I am giving you your hands and those of your brothers and sisters . . . the space that God gives us to build up with one another, to build a ‘we.’” The work creates a relationship. “As Genesis recounts, after the word ‘cultivate,’ another word immediately follows: ‘care.’ Each explains the other. They go hand in hand. Those who do not cultivate do not care; those who do not care do not cultivate.”

There are parallel insights in Lutheran theology. Isak Tranvik, a theologically-minded young political theorist has explained how Martin Luther’s concept of vocation suggests the public work of civic co-creation. “Luther didn’t use the term ‘citizen.’ He was writing years prior to the democratic revolutions that would later sweep the western world…This meant that Luther was forced to think hard about what it meant to live a public life…Luther had to conceptualize politics beyond government and citizenship without voting.”

Luther’s concept of vocation, Tranvik argues, challenges modern categories. “It recognizes but moves beyond ethics, salvation, and the philosophical concept of the self. For Luther, one’s vocation is a call to live in the world…part of rather than partner with the public…The public’s needs are the Christian’s needs. Conversely, the Christian’s needs are the public needs. There is no call other than a public one; there is no work other than ‘public work.’ One can (co)create with the ‘neighbor,’ to use Luther’s language, instead of performing her faith for the neighbor…one can be a neighbor instead of serving the neighbor.”

It's useful to note that other religious traditions have parallel insights. I described the concepts of wilderness and Nehemiah politics in the Torah in the last essay. Last year in India I was taken with the depth of Hindu philosophy about the meaning of work. Gandhi called this "the Gospel of work." It played a central role in the struggle for Indian independence.

Such perspectives complement the transdisciplinary field called “civic studies.”

Civic studies

A movement in political theory forms the background for civic studies. William Galston described the emergence of the alternative movement, which he calls political realism, in an article in European Journal of Political Theory. “During the decades-long reign of what some have called ‘high liberalism,’” he argues, “a countermovement has slowly been taking shape [united by] the belief that high liberalism represents a desire to evade, displace, or escape from politics.”  He cites Bonnie Honig’s argument. “Those writing from diverse positions – republican, liberal, and communitarian – converge in their assumptions that…the task…is to resolve institutional questions, to get politics right, over and done with, to free modern subjects and their sets of arrangements [from] political conflict and instability.” Realist political theorists insist on politics, practical approaches to making change through negotiation, bargaining, and accommodation of diverse interests. Stephen Elkin, often located in the realist camp, puts it, “There is no substitute for politics…the various ways in which we arrive at collective, authoritative decisions in a world in which people legitimately hold different views...” 

Elkin was the founder of the journal The Good Society. On the founding board was Elinor Ostrom, awarded the Nobel Prize for Economics for her work on citizen-centered governance of common pool resources like fisheries and forests.  Over the years The Good Society became A Journal of Civic Studies.  

Elkin brought together a group of us to organize what became the civic studies field in 2007. It is now well-established as a "next stage" of civic engagement in Tisch College of Civic Life at Tufts University. The civic studies group also organizes two institutes each year (in Boston and the Ukraine) and helps to organize a high profile conference, "Frontiers of democracy." Its aim is to provide intellectual resources for people, including academics and other professionals, acting as citizens. It asks, “what should we (as citizens) do?” as Peter Levine, another co-founder, puts it. 

Common pool resource theory, one contributing stream, counters pessimism about the fate of the commons and offers a way to think beyond “pro” and “anti” government approaches. Researchers examined shared-resource cases around the world such as fisheries, forests, irrigation systems, the internet. They discovered that the widespread pessimism about the fate of common resources is misplaced because of several wrong assumptions: the commons is by definition “open to all,” rather than a managed collective resource; little or no communication exists among users; users act only in their immediate and narrow self-interests failing to take into account long term collective benefits; there are only two possible outcomes for the commons—privatization or government control.  They found that it is possible to avoid destruction of the commons through self-organized governance with high civic participation nested in larger governance structures, what Ostrom called “polycentric governance systems...where citizens are able to organize not just one but multiple governing authorities at different scales.”

Civic studies also is informed by the concept of citizenship as public work developed by the Center for Democracy and Citizenship and our partners through participatory action research in many settings. The forthcoming Pedagogy of the Empowered: Enacting Democracy through Public Work (Boyte et al, Vanderbilt University Press, 2018) details many examples. 

Public work highlights citizens as builders of a common world, not simply voters, deliberators, or consumers who take the common world as a given. Public work can be defined as self-organized efforts by a mix of people who create things, material or cultural, of lasting public value, determined by deliberation. 

The concept has roots in communal labor practices in virtually every society (described in my Political Theory piece on public work) that create and sustain “the commons,” self-organizing, egalitarian, and cooperative effort across divisions; practical concerns for creating shared collective resources; adaptability; and incentives based on appeal to immediate interests combined with cultivation of concern for long term community well-being. 

The public work frame sees citizens as co-creators of a democratic society in which citizens are the foundational agents. Public work highlights the civic possibilities of work and also citizen-centered politics, moving away from the view of politics as a highly ideological battle over scarce resources centered on the state.

These perspectives led to civic science.

Civic science beyond technocracy

Jim asks whether “technocracy” is sufficient explanation for the erosion of citizenship. I agree that the problem is bigger, “the new faith that honors autonomous individuals in their quest for freedom by way of the mastery of the nature.” 

To draw again on Laudato Si’,  “the technocratic paradigm” involves “a Promethean vision of mastery of the world… [producing] the tendency, at times unconscious, to make the method and aims of science and technology an epistemological paradigm which shapes the lives of individuals and the workings of society.”

Positivism was highly contested until the recent past. The Council of Christian Colleges and Universities, for instance, represents what Kenneth Wheeler has described as an “educational world in which productive, manual labor was valued [and] egalitarian co-education was emphasized,” in Cultivating Regionalism.  He describes the proliferation of small colleges founded by religious denominations that were “more egalitarian, practical, anti-elitist,” he says (Augsburg University, founded in 1869, is an example). “Their gender ideals didn’t emphasize separate spheres or same-sex education.” They combined work and learning, substituting labor for the gymnastics which characterized Eastern education and the military drill of the South. They had values which emphasized the dignity and intrinsic worth of workers and “evinced a ‘deep disquiet with an economic system that valued even humans in monetary terms.” They were seedbeds of abolitionism and women’s suffrage. 

Land grant colleges constituted a parallel tradition with democratic understandings of knowledge-making. In Science, Democracy, and the American University: From the Civil War to the Cold War Andrew Jewett describes “scientific democrats” in this vein. “Many …understood the term ‘science’ to include the social forces that shaped the application – and perhaps even the production – of scientific knowledge.” In such a “dynamic concept of science,” said Charles Kellogg, a leading soil scientist, “the relevancy of fact is as important to truth as fact itself.” “so what?” questions need always to be added to the question “Is it so?”   Science included cultural practices like cooperative effort and experimental inquiry seen as vital to the democratic way of life.

Science, as it developed in the last 60 years, has shriveled to the view that it produces  “the answers” to complex public problems through Big Data. This view is embodied in an ad for Colorado State in the Denver airport: Community Problems, University Solutions. This shriveling grows from a shift to the concept of science as value-free techniques. “The scientists who powerfully shaped the national discourse on science in the middle years of the twentieth century drew a sharp line between science and society,” says Jewett. “They portrayed science as a space untouchable by both the state and the horizontal communication between citizens.”  

Donna Shalala, then-chancellor of the University of Wisconsin, embodied this view in“Mandate for a New Century,” calling for the revival of the fabled “Wisconsin Ideal." She redefined the ideal in unabashedly technocratic ways: “The ideal [is] a disinterested technocratic elite… society’s best and brightest in service to its most needy [dedicated to] delivering the miracles of social science [on society’s problems] just as doctors cured juvenile rickets in the past.”  Her vision was progressive. She named many problems, from environmental degradation, homophobia, and racism to school reform and intergroup violence. But it is important to look at her view's profound inadequacies.

Civic science challenges it, developing in several stages.

In 1997 the Kellogg Foundation asked the Center for Democracy and Citizenship to make an assessment of possibilities for revitalizing the land grand mission of the University of Minnesota.  Edwin Fogelman, chair of the Political Science Department, and I interviewed several dozen senior professors across colleges and disciplines. We asked if they went into their fields with any desire for public impact. The question surfaced hidden discontents with the norms of detachment which hold “value neutrality” to be constitutive of scholarly excellence. Many leaders in their fields told me that they would not be able even to discuss their discontents given the university biases against public engagement.

Working with the provost, Robert Bruininks, we created a university-wide task force on revitalizing the land grant mission through strengthening public dimensions of scholarship, teaching, and community engagement.  There are many lessons. Here I want to highlight a public work approach to public scholarship.

Aware of the politics of knowledge in higher education we asked a senior scientist, Vic Bloomfield, to chair the public scholarship committee. Using a public work approach, instead of advancing models of what public scholarship look likes, the committee asked scholars questions such as “What would it mean to make your scholarship and research more public? What incentive structures could support scholarship in your discipline as public work?”  These questions generated enormous energy.

Such questions highlight other flaws in one-way knowledge.  For instance, Philip Nyden, co-chair of the American Sociological Association’s Task Force on Public Sociology made the case in our first volume, Civic Studies, published by AAC&U, about the missing action dimension in conventional academic life. As he puts it, every sociology department has a course called “social problems” but he hasn’t found one with “social solutions.” He says, “Academics may be well trained in methodology and theory, but they are not always trained or experienced in…the political process of bringing about change…[their] ‘problem-oriented’ approach-- which assumes that the community has a deficit – obscures that fact that academic researchers themselves may have a deficit that needs to be corrected by experienced community leaders and activists.”

A group of public work intellectuals and organizers began working in 2005 with colleagues and students of the late Esther Thelen, a leading scientist who brought dynamic systems theory into child development science. The Delta Center, founded by John Spencer, a scientist of infant brain development and systems theory, was a key partner.  

Civic science constructively addresses the knowledge wars by stressing the need for multiple kinds of knowledge to meet the large challenges facing our nation and the world —climate, energy security, health care, a sustainable and just food system, income inequality, to mention a few. Civic science stresses the work of scientists as potentially democratic public work, with scientists as citizens. We involved health scientists, family social scientists, climate scientists, agricultural scientists and others, organizing a workshop with the National Science Foundation in 2014.

Civic science stresses that today’s disagreements about the role of science emerge not only around values and goals, but also over what “facts” mean and what methods generate reliable information. 

It holds promise to overcome the misunderstanding between scientists and the general public. Scientists believe that their work is not valued by citizens who may have last encountered science in high school. Lay citizens often feel that scientists’ approaches invalidate their experiences, condescend to their intelligence, and neglect skills of relational action.

Civic science is a framework for transcending knowledge wars while producing knowledge that enhances collective capacities for effective action, what we call civic agency.  There are two defining features: One is the idea that integrating different kinds of knowledge and knowledge practices through a pluralist politics increases civic muscle. The other is the way public work develops the citizen identities of all participants regardless of formal credentials. People act in their capacity as citizens, prioritizing deliberative and collaborative work, learning respect for others’ talents. 

Civic science embodies Jane Lubchenco’s famous 1998 call in Science, “Entering the century of the environment: a new social contract for science,” for wisdom and humility on the part of scientists.

It is akin to the Colossian Forum, with its project of reawakening the democratic and civic purposes of Christian colleges and universities.

These efforts have never been more important.

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Reader Comments (1)

Thanks very much for a very clear account of citizenship. I especially appreciated the importance of co-creation. Too often as an academic, I've embodied the position: "if only they'd listen to me." Instead, it should be "if only we listen together."
Much appreciated.

December 20, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterClarke Cochran

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