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Citizens and Political Culture

Citizens and Political Culture

James W. Skillen


            Harry Boyte’s initial contribution to our conversation is intriguing and certainly addresses “the notion of politics” from a different angle than my piece did. So I look forward to the conversation that now follows.

            APPRECIATIVE AGREEMENT—I couldn’t agree more that practical training of citizens is urgently needed in the United States. To encourage people to realize that citizenship requires more than passive acquiescence in the decisions of others is crucial. To gain a sense of agency—the acceptance of active responsibility—in public life is necessary if there is to be a change in our society and culture toward greater humility, justice, and public love.

            Harry, I am sympathetic with many of the important influences that have shaped your approach, such as the work of Jane Addams, various streams of community organizing, Catholic social teaching, theology of the people, and more. You are engaged in creative efforts that build on, and also go beyond, those traditions. With regard to community organizing efforts, I am well acquainted with the influential work of Saul Alinsky (1909-72) in Chicago and some of the groups you mention, such as Communities Organized for Public Service (COPS) in San Antonio. I learned a great deal from a closely related organization, the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF) and the work of Ernie Cortes, with whom I and several colleagues were in conversation in the 1980s. One of the great influences in all of this, I believe, was the work of Paulo Freire (1921-97), the Brazilian educator who worked to empower the poor through consciousness-raising about their place in an oppressive social order that frustrated agency on their part. His book Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1970) was published and republished widely and in many languages. Your book, Pedagogy of the Powered, I am guessing, suggests Freire’s influence.

            I mention these lines of thought and action because they have been constructive citizen-training and mobilizing efforts initiated largely by Roman Catholics who were marginalized and treated disparagingly by white Anglo-Saxon Protestants through most of the nineteenth century and well into the twentieth. Furthermore, as you indicate, the most oppressed Americans—the slaves before and after “emancipation”—made tremendously constructive contributions, leading to and through the Civil Rights Movement. The story you tell at the end of your piece about your project to transform special education through Public Achievement (PA) is illustrative of creative thinking and action. Sadly, too many of the educational and mobilizing efforts of white Protestants have been destructive rather than constructive. Movements ranging from the Know Nothings, against Catholics, and the Ku Klux Klan, against blacks, are just two of the many dozen white-nationalist groups that could be named. Tragically, we are witnessing their revival this very day across the country, encouraged by Donald Trump right from the White House.

            AREAS OF DISAGREEMENT FOR DEBATE—With regard to your criticism of the “technocratic paradigm” as the root cause (or one of the chief causes) of the devaluation of people that causes them to feel powerless, I want to say both no and yes. My disagreement is related to the way you connect that paradigm directly to the passivity and weakness of citizen engagement. My agreement is related to your quote from Pope Francis’ Laudato Si’: “The basic problem goes even deeper . . . It is the way that humanity has taken up . . . an undifferentiated and one-dimensional paradigm [that] exalts the concept of a subject, who, using logical ad rational procedures, progressively approaches and gains control over an external object.”

            Let me begin with the statement of Pope Francis. In just a few words the Pope summarizes what we might call “the science ideal of the European Enlightenment,” which established “instrumental reason” as the normative pattern for critical thinking in the West across most sectors of society. The Enlightenment’s rationalist idealism aimed to do more than empower science-minded experts to reorganize society. The Enlightenment represented a religiously deep revolution. Its aim was to displace the patterns of Christendom-in-crisis with a new way of life grounded in a new story of creation, fall, and redemption. Humans should be liberated to become the creators of their own lives. The “sin” they had to overcome was/is ignorance fostered by ecclesiastical mythmakers. And salvation from that sin could come only from sound empirical study and scientific reasoning that make possible human mastery of the natural world and the self-organization of a free society.

            The Enlightenment vision and its practical outworking have been nothing less than a secular displacement religion for early modern, compromised Christianity. And that secular modern won way of life has won countless followers. I refer to it as a way of life because it amounts to more than a new scientific method or critical theory. Most American Christians have accommodated themselves to it be deciding to practice of their faith a private way. While I agree with you, Harry, that the technocratic paradigm of instrumental reason has infiltrated nearly every sector of society, including schools, businesses, and government, I do not believe it is the chief culprit undermining the sense of agency on the part of citizens. The deeper root is the new faith—a widespread faith—that honors autonomous individuals in their quest for freedom by way of the mastery of nature. The same faith has also generated the ideologies of nationalism, communism, and democratism. So I prefer to look at the deeper root and the variety of motives that have led people, often unconsciously, to into passivity in their lives as citizens.

            That leads to my reason for wanting to say “no” to your critique of technocratic control and your proposal to push against it in order “to transform the logic that gives primacy to efficient technological systems.” Isn’t your focus, then, both too narrow and somewhat naïve in making the technocratic paradigm the lead antagonist of active citizenship. The Enlightenment’s secular “religion” of human freedom and mastery is not first of all the “logic” of technocratic administration and control. It is deeper and more encompassing than that. Consequently, it seems to me, what is needed is to call adherents of that way of life—both those in control and those feeling powerless—to conversion, that is, to turn away from that way of life to a way of life that entails your “nonviolent philosophy of ‘public love’” On that basis, civic education and mobilization would then be able to focus on how such a paradigm shift could lead to a sounder approach to “citizen politics.”

            Consider, for example, your objection to the consolidation of schools to gain greater efficiency. Research now shows, you argue, that larger schools are associated with reduced rates of student participation. The error of consolidation, you say, comes from control by technocratic experts who use mistaken criteria of misplaced efficiency and overlook the real purpose of education. I agree that there are many examples of the use of misplaced criteria in today’s institutions, including schools, due to the adoption of technocratic norms of judgment.  Think just of those who believe that if government were only run as a business enterprise it would be more efficient and less costly. However, the consolidation of schools in districts across the country, as I understand the process, was also motivated by declining populations in rural areas and by the desire to integrate schools to achieve greater equality in education. Those motives were very people-centered, leading members of democratically elected school boards, for example, to debate the issues intensely.

            You quote a research report approvingly that says “the loss of a school [through consolidation] erodes a community’s social and economic base—its sense of community, identity and democracy—and the loss permanently diminishes the community itself, sometimes to the verge of abandonment.” However, when communities were (and are) already eroding for economic and other social reasons, it was (is) not technocratic experts who manipulated passive citizens to agree to school closings. The motives and concerns of many parents, teachers, and communities were directed toward giving children how to give their children greater schooling opportunities, and/or to try to vercome racially segregated neighborhoods and schools, and/or to build a sense of community in anonymous suburbia by means of the schools. I am not now advocating the consolidation of schools without qualification, and there have been many failures in public policies and education programs. You are right, in my opinion, about some of those failures. But I am simply calling for attention to the complex diversity of motives, institutional aims, and inter-institutional networks that come into play in public governance at local, state, and federal levels.

            QUESTIONS UNANSWERED OR AVOIDED—The broadest concern I have with your presentation, Harry, is one I can try to put in a question: What is it that citizens are citizens of? Your initial contribution to our conversation as well as your work in both the university and beyond focuses on citizens. You want to put citizens at the center, not politicians or political parties. Your are engaged in education and training that is citizen-centered, not state-centered. But doesn’t that abstract citizens from the context in which citizenship has its meaning? By analogy, what would it mean for a sociologist to focus on children, not on parents and families? Or what would it mean to focus on students, not on teachers and schools? A specific focus can often be helpful, but not if the context of that which receives your attention is lost from view.

            To explain my question, I want to build out from my initial presentation. Are there not particular, political reasons why citizens of the American republic feel powerless, frustrated, and lacking in agency? The reason has to be more than the fact that we have all grown dependent on technocratic expertise. That answer can be offered to explain the sense of powerlessness that many people feel in their work places, in schooling, in media consumption, and even in many churches. But what is distinctively political about low voter turn out and the sense of alienation felt by many citizens? Without taking into account the institutional structure and dynamics of a polity, of our constitutional republic, how can one help to educate and motivate people in their capacity as citizens?

            The central problem I see in your presentation is the undifferentiated way in which you speak about citizens. Let me try to explain. Consider the following comparison. Many Christians, Catholics perhaps more than Protestants, refer to church members who are not part of the clergy as “laypeople.” The word has specific ecclesiastical meaning, yet it is often used to refer to those  people in any and every walk of life. For example, Catholic political parties that arose in Western Europe in the late nineteenth century were referred to as “lay parties” to indicate that they were not directed by the church hierarchy. It is typically laypeople, including members of Congress, who organize the annual Presidential Prayer Breakfast every February. But here is the problem. Is it in their capacity as laypeople that parents serve their families? Is it as church laypeople that workers do their jobs at the corporation? Is it laypeople who teach children in a school? These questions are important to get at the meaning of agency.

            While it is true that Christian laypeople will carry that identity with them at all times, it is not in that capacity that parents raise children, or that workers do their jobs at the factory, or that teachers teach students. It is not in my capacity as a parent that I do my job at the factory. It is not in my capacity as a citizen that I teach students. So my question is, what kind of agency or responsibility do people in their capacity as citizens exercise in a polity?

            If we speak of citizens organizing to improve their schools, strengthen their families, improve housing in a neighborhood, and learn to do so with humility, courage, and love, doesn’t the word “citizen” then come to mean everything and nothing? The meaning of agency either dissipates or is flattened to generalities to allow for its universality. Yet the responsibilities in one arena are not the same as in another. Consequently, in order to encourage the agency of those who function in one capacity or another, don’t we need to know (or argue for) the specific kind of responsibility they bear and consider how they can exercise it in a meaningful, reforming way. And doesn’t that demand a grasp of the kind of relationship or institution in which people bear the responsibilities they have?

            This is where I have to confess that I don’t understand what you mean when you say you want to focus on citizens, not on politicians or political parties, and that you want to be citizen-centered not state-centered. Is that not to abstract the “citizen” from the polity in which citizenship has its contextual meaning? If you are abstracting, then how do you see the relationship of citizens to “the state,” or is that what you don’t want to consider? On the other hand, if you are using the word “citizen” in the broad sense to refer to people functioning in many different capacities, then how do the educational ventures in which you are engaged focus specifically on family responsibilities, school responsibilities, ecclesiastical responsibilities, or the responsibilities of businesses, the public media, and political parties, politicians, and government?

            My sense from reading your contribution, as I said above, is that you are using the word “citizen” in a broad and undifferentiated way. For example, you quote approvingly Septima Clark who urges “broadening the scope of democracy to include everyone and deepening the concept to include every relationship.” This suggests that democratization is the key to vital agency in every institution. You see the fruits of your (and your colleagues’) labors expressed in a book that calls for the “democratization of higher education,” and you want to translate “the citizen politics of broad-based community organizing into institutional and cultural change in schools, colleges, health institutions, and cooperative extension.” You write, “Power involves ideas and cultural dynamics, not only ‘people and money.’ Public work emphasizes civil possibilities of work and workplaces.” Is democratization, then, the universal answer to agency regardless of any differences among institutions? This sound to me very close to John Dewey’s “religion of democracy.”

            Do these comments of mine make sense, Harry? Am I adequately representing your understanding of the matter even as I raise questions about your presentation, or am I missing something?

            Following from those comments and questions, other questions arise. You believe, if I understand you correctly, that the kind of awakening needed today is one that inspires commitment to nonviolent action in the line of Martin Luther King Jr, and Mahatma Gandhi. You also say that citizen-centered politics and public work should be cross-partisan and build across the Red and Blue divide. You want to alert people to the “rising dangers of authoritarianism around the world” and create or hold onto “free spaces” where “people have room to self-organize, to develop intellectual life, and to learn relational and political skills.” But what are the assumptions behind, and the implications of, these statements?

            Is part of your attention, then, to help build organizations like the NAACP, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and others that King and associates used to push forward the Civil Rights Movement? Does “cross-partisan” politics mean you will advocate only on issues or policies that have support from both sides? Does it mean you want a little from Red and a little from Blue, or are you suggesting the possibility of a political “third way?” What criteria for good government and public administration do you want to encourage “citizens” to adopt? What kind of free spaces are needed that don’t exist now? Aren’t families and schools and churches and associations of activists such places? Which authority should guarantee the openness of free spaces? Is it government, the courts and the First Amendment, churches, collegs, or voluntary associations?

            Do you have a normative idea of a polity? For example, when you speak of nonviolence, do you intend that force should not be used even by governments? Or do you mean only that citizen movements for political change should act nonviolently and work for a government that uses its force accountably, under law, to overcome oppression like slavery and to protect the innocent? Is there anything about the design of our Constitution—its federal structure, system of representation, or something else—you encourage citizens to try to change?

            I do not expect you to try to answer all of these questions, Harry. But I have posed them to try to substantiate my big question about what a polity should be and what the role of citizens in it should be.

            WHAT IS CHRISTIAN ABOUT IT?—Much of what you have written, Harry, quite  evidently exudes a Christian spirit and dedication. Your desire to promote citizen empowerment in the direction of “public love,” humility, courage, and justice; the way you are trying to build an open public community of mutual encouragement; your idea of “pedagogy of the powered” to give a hand up and not just a hand out—all of these and more seem to me to exhibit what flows from Christ’s promise that his followers will bear much fruit. In that spirit and from those fruits I learn more from you and your work.

            Where I think your work can be strengthened in a Christian way is by doing more with Catholic social teaching and the best of Christian-democratic political movements to develop a normative, pluralistic, political perspective. In doing that I think your efforts will be able to provide even more encouragement to citizens in addressing head-on the serious crisis of American politics and government by offering a better vision of, and program for, a just polity.


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Reader Comments (3)

Hi - in the interests of kicking the can along the road, I notice "It is not in my capacity as a citizen that I teach students. " - but why not? As a member of a faith community, I assume that I behave in a consistent and coherent way wherever I am; and presumably as a member of an imagined/constructed political community, I should be doing the same - whether on the street or in some space to which I have been appointed or elected. Paul

December 11, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterPaul Graham

Paul good point with scalpel-like precision of the text ... can Jim's point about the differentiation of "normative capacities" be maintained by turning the statement into a rhetorical question? i.e. Is it from my capacity as a committed citizen that I teach students wisely? With the internationalisation of schooling and university education the class-room (the teacher-student venue) can have a teacher who has citizenship different from the students, just as the class may have students with citizenships different from the teacher and from each other. It doesn't stop being a class-room on that account. The teacher is still married, a father, and a citizen and much more - just because s/he is in a class-room doesn't require "clocking off" from those responsibilities. Isn't Jim's point that a citizen's responsibility for public governance is not fulfilled by her/his teacher's classroom responsibility for wise nurture. Although at times a teacher is going to have to make "public justice" type judgements in the class-room as are the students ...

December 11, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterBruce Wearne

Paul and Bruce:

My point was not that people are divided into water-tight compartments that are disconnected from one another. Bruce gets close to my meaning on that score. I guess I could put it this way: as a teacher in the classroom I am dealing with students in their capacity as students, not with my children or my employees or my health providers. But of course, both the students and I, in the classroom, may also be married or unmarried, U.S. citizens or Kenyan citizens, violinists or baseball players, rural or urban people. And in all of that they are the same people. It is precisely as whole people that we can function in all those capacities, that we can wear all those hats.
As a Christian, I believe that all humans have been created in the image of God and that all of us, in all of our capacities live before the face of God. And that means that all of those capacities have something to do with making manifest who I am and who God is. That's why God discloses the divine identity as parent of children, as husband of a wife, shepherd of sheep, teacher of disciples, lord and king, etc., etc. And in fact the relation among these show up in wonderful mixed metaphors, such as David and Christ being "shepherd kings," and my favorite, from Revelation, is the new Jerusalem "coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband." Can you imagine: a city as a bride, a the king as a husband.
But you see, in order for the mixed metaphor to work, the two images cannot be dissolved into one. Each has to maintain its meaning for us to see the back-and-forth richness of the various features.
I'll close with a story. When I was teaching political science as a college professor, I once opened a course, the first day, by telling the students I wanted to get to know them and for them to know that I really cared for them as persons who were studying with me. So I sent around sign-up sheets and asked them to write down their name, their major, their phone number, and the number of their dorm room, saying that during the semester I wanted to stop by and give each one a kiss goodnight and tuck them into bed. Of course they were shocked and I know a few of them would have gone straight to the Dean's office after class. So when I asked them why they looked shocked and uncomfortable, they said in different ways essentially the same thing: but we are your students, not your children. I then said, but the Bible tells us to love all our neighbors, and that's one of the ways I want to show equal love. But you see, there are different kinds of NEIGHBORS. Each one has to be loved in ways appropriate to the kind of relationship we have. That's why I like to describe the relationship citizens have in a polity as "citizens-in-law." The phrase obviously plays on "mother- or father-in-law," a relationship that the "in-law" does not initiate but one that arises through their marriage. Most citizens do not choose the countries in which they have citizenship, nor told they choose who their fellow citizens will be. The relationship is defined by all of them living under and (in many countries) bearing some responsibility for the public laws and government of the country in which they have their citizenship.

Hope this helps a little.

December 12, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterJim Skillen

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