Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Can civic engagement build community?

For years my goal as an educator has been to help students become civically engaged.  It is easy to measure that engagement. If people do something--serve, run for office, protest, vote, start a non-profit, sit on a board, write to the editor, blog, tweet--to help the civic realm, then they are civically engaged.  And that civic engagement would ultimately build community.

In thinking like this, I was not alone.  The bible of the civic engagement movement--Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community--is built around the notion that a decline in civic behaviors leads to a decline in public life.  And the principal product (at least in higher education) of this view--the civic engagement center--measures its success by the number of volunteers, hours donated,  and service learning classes.  The goal of these sorts of organizations, then, is to get programs set up that lead students, citizens, and neighbors to do civic acts, and by so doing them, build community.

I have felt uncomfortable about this assumption--that doing is the goal of civic engagement--for a while.  And my discomfort has grown in the past month as I have had the opportunity to keynote two conferences about civic engagement.  In each conference--the annual Utah Chapter of the American Planning Association meeting, and the Utah State Board of Education's Social Studies and Civic Education in Utah's Schools event--I ended up arguing that the important thing is not doing (though doing is essential) but developing what William James called "the civic temper." It is the civic temper that leads to community.

The phrase comes from James' essay The Moral Equivalent of War in which he argues that a civilized society needs to eschew war but create something like military service to develop in its citizens "toughness without callousness, authority with as little criminal cruelty as possible...strenuous honor and disinterestedness;" the hallmarks of the civic temper.

According to Rebecca Solnit's A Paradise Built in Hell, James was inspired by the way that citizens of San Francisco responded to the earthquake and fire of 1906.  Without being governed, driven, or told what to do, they began to feed each other, care for the sick, and build a community from the rubble of the city.  Their actions, inspired by a sense of empathy, love, and sacrifice, were thwarted by the army and the city government, which moved in and destroyed their efforts in favor of a centralized response to disaster.

That story requires us to ask whether centralized, planned programs can create civic temper, or whether they are more likely to create compliance. (This concern is echoed in Barry Schwartz' Practical Wisdom which argues that rules and incentives--the main tools in the quiver of planned programs--limit the wisdom of people who are driven by them.)

Two of the leading activists and thinkers of the 20th century--Jane Addams and Dorothy Day--suggested that the goal of civic efforts should be to develop civic tempers, not build programs designed to get people to behave civically.  Addams' Hull House and Day's Catholic Worker movement were both built around hospitality, communal work, and the development of deep connections between people who have deeply different backgrounds but profoundly similar needs.

Out of the stories of Addams and Day, a set of priorities emerge, which I suspect lead to the creation of a civic temper, and thus to community.  They are:

  • reliance on the moral will of people, not on rules and incentives
  • aspiring to lead lives of common responsibility and mutual trust, not lives based around doing certain tasks ("service" for example)
  • the development of formal organizations, not permanent organizations
  • a focus on replicable outcomes, not scalable inputs.  In other words, there are many local ways to get to the goal of community. 
  • Prefer the concrete over the abstract, and the story over "data"
  • And, finally, seek for love (or what Addams called "ardor"), over anger
All of these virtues do two things--they help people avoid becoming settled in a program or a rigid approach to public life.  And all of them contribute to a sense of community among human beings. Let me close by saying a final word about love.  In their day-to-day lives people speak about love all the time--of place, of people, of jobs, of a higher power.  It is, in key ways, essential for community.

None of this is to say that doing is useless.  But doing is most effective when it both aims towards and comes from the civic temper.

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