Background on the Theme

For additional background on the IARSLCE conference theme, Connected Knowing, read our first post from KerryAnn O'Meara, the 2012 conference program chair

Monday, March 12, 2012

Harry Boyte, Center for Democracy and Citizenship, Augsburg College

Harry C. Boyte, Director of the Center for Democracy and Citizenship, Augsburg College
Senior Fellow, Humphrey School of Public Affairs

Connected Knowing and the Politics of Civic Agency

Some years ago (2000) I wrote an essay for a special issue of the journal of the American Association of University Professors, Academe. The issue was called “Are We Good Citizens? – Civic Engagement and Higher Education,” and my article was entitled “The Struggle Against Positivism.” For those interested, it is on the web. I was pleased with the venue – the distinguished journal of the association and at places trade union of faulty. And I was glad to see another sign of the awakening interest in citizenship which it represented.

But I was discomfited with the subtitle given my essay – “Academics can be public intellectuals but they can’t pose as ‘experts.’” This struck me as far too dismissive of the disciplines and knowledge assiduously acquired by academics. The concept of “craft” is, in my view, a much better concept than “expert,” but the subtitle seemed, wrongly, to obliterate the skills, habits, and knowledge acquired in disciplinary study. This is a significant, if common mistake in the engagement movement. I was especially dismayed at the picture on the cover. An older academic, beaming, was surrounded by adoring African American children, several of whom were hugging him.  In this ensemble of images and themes can be found both the strength and the limit of the dominant approaches in the public or civic engagement movement in recent years. These can also be implicit in “connected knowing.” 

The dominant approach to public engagement grows from the communitarian philosophical framework, energized by the strong impulses of many in higher education to break out of the cultures of isolation, detachment, and individualism which have grown up over the last half century. This detachment is the product of a default positivism woven into our institutions. Positivism is based on a particular politics of knowledge, which holds that detached and “objective” scholars are the singular font of sound knowledge. The human costs of such detachment are severe. When Ed Fogelman, chairman of the Department of Political Science and I did interviews with senior academic leaders at the University of Minnesota, across many disciplines, in 1997-98, we heard again and again the human costs of “success” in such a culture: feelings of isolation, dispiritedness, loss of larger public purpose.  The report on the interviews, Public Engagement in a Civic Mission, is on the web here

But the communitarian focus on relationship and its cluster of related themes like community, service, connectedness and the like is also apolitical. Under a garment of affect (the “warm and fuzzy” associations evoked in the Academe cover), it hides the diverse, often contending interests, conflicts and power dynamics which are always present in colleges and universities and their complex relationships with communities and publics. 

In particular, to go back to “positivism,” the idea of connection does not surface the implicit devaluation of multiple forms of knowledge – cultural, local, experiential, spiritual – which a half century of detachment has worked.

I would propose that a focus on “civic agency politics” as the next stage of our movement. It emphasizes connected knowing in the service of collective empowerment.

In the face of multiplying global crises, from economic collapse to global warming and sectarian and ideological conflict, many signs of civic agency are also appearing.  Civic agency involves collective empowerment -- skills, confidence, and outlook for people to become shapers of their lives and communities and agents of change, in open environments without tightly predetermined outcomes. Civic agency is central to the effort by a group of scholars to define an emergent “civic field,” who organize the annual Institute of Civic Studies at Tufts.

Civic agency is built through what we call public work, based on a concept of the citizen as a co-creator of a democratic way of life, a view that emphasizes politics’ productive as well as participatory, deliberative, and distributive aspects.  Civic agency is an alternative to conventional ideological politics, on the one hand, and community service and volunteerism, on the other.

But we are also caught in a corrosive knowledge war that presents a fierce obstacle to a politics of civic agency.  On the one side are detached and technocratic champions of the singular authority of scientific and disciplinary knowledge—what might be called the cult of the expert. Those of us in research universities are all too familiar with the posture of “the best and the brightest,” bringing solutions to those viewed as ignorant, passive, needy, and pitiable.  As we have come to better understand the inner workings of higher education, we have found that the expert cult is often a cover for deep insecurities – research faculty members are generally better understood as isolated and trapped scholars than as arrogant know-it-all experts. But the consequences of detachment are nonetheless dramatic. As Josiah Ober observes in Democracy and Knowledge, classical Athens had many practices and methods of aggregating expert and amateur knowledge. In contrast, “Contemporary practice often treats free citizens as passive subjects by discounting the value of what they know…Willful ignorance is practiced by the parties of the right and left alike.” An Athenian brought by time machine to the present would see the cloistered expert approach to problem solving and policy making as “both worse for democracy and less likely to benefit the community.”

The cult of the expert has many effects. Professionals have narrowed identities from “civic” to “disciplinary” – no longer are most teachers or clergy or businessmen and women schooled to think of themselves as building the civic life of a place through their work. Dominant models of knowledge-making undercut the moral and civic authority of forms of knowledge that are not academic – wisdom passed down by cultural elders, spiritual insight, local and craft knowledge, the common sense of a community about raising children.  As they do so, they also undermine the confidence, standing, and authority of everyday citizens without degrees and formally credentialed expertise. As former Occidental College president Ted Mitchell has observed, one percent of Americans or less produce the knowledge that “counts.” 

Institutions of many kinds – from schools to nonprofits, businesses to congregations, government agencies to universities – have lost community roots. In consequence, “institutions” have come to be conceived as abstract, bureaucratic, largely impervious to culture change, defined by rules, regulations, structures, and procedures, not as human creations that can in turn be re-created. They are also, often, profoundly disempowering.

But everyday citizens are not innocents in the knowledge war. An anti-intellectual “know-nothing” culture of victimhood and grievance has spread, especially dysfunctional for those in poverty or social isolation. Know-nothing politics disparages academic knowledge, science, and professional practices in the name of community and personal experience. This has been long developing. It was at the heart of “the Reagan Revolution,” pervaded the Bush presidency, and more recently has animated a number of candidates on the conservative side, from Sarah Palin to Rick Perry and Rick Santorum. The appeal of their messages reflects an overlooked divide in America – in recent elections, differences in education levels were a far more salient factor in how people voted than income levels. 

We have to get beyond expert cults and aggrieved communities if we want to develop civic agency, the capacities of people and communities to solve problems and to generate cultures that sustain such agency. This means a return to what I would call the civic and populist spirit and politics of great movements in our past, like the cooperative, union, community, and cultural organizing of the 1930s. These mingled multiple kinds of learning and knowledge with a broader agenda of democratization.   In those years, many colleges and universities were called “democracy colleges,” for their deep rootedness and relationship in community cultures, and their strong emphasis on educating students and professionals generally as citizens.

Civic agency politics is reviving today in a number of efforts and initiatives which promote and develop civic agency in learning, knowledge production, and relations with communities. Here is this argument with three sets of pictures:

The first, with a quote from Saul Alinsky, a founding figure in community organizing, has pictures from the on-line exhibit “New Deal for the Arts,” originally in the National Archives. The pictures convey the agency of working people and professionals, alike, in the movements of the Great Depression.

 “The world is deluged with panaceas, formulas, proposed laws, machineries, ways out, and myriads of solutions. It is significant and tragic that almost every one of these proposed plans and alleged solutions deals with the structure of society, but none concerns the substance—the people. This, despite the eternal truth of the democratic faith that the solution always lies with the people.” Saul Alinsky, 1946

A more overtly political work, Lest We Forget recalls the plight of landless farmers in the American South and the organizing efforts of the Southern Tenant Farmers' Union. Marked Tree is a small Arkansas town that was the site of anti-union violence. Ben Shahn traveled through Arkansas in 1935 while working as a photographer for the Resettlement Administration. .

The second picture is of one of the two sets of statues of ordinary citizens (“Bread Line”) in the Roosevelt Memorial, with an accompanying quote from a famous 1989 speech by Donna Shalala, “Mandate for a New Century,” which called for reconnection with the society, renewal of the public service mission of higher education, led by progressives (she touts every cause of the left in her speech) who form a “technocratic elite.” Shalala’s is the default politics of knowledge of today. It produces cultural imagery of a passive citizenry waiting to be rescued.

“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.” Donna Shalala,  “Mandate for a New Century”         1989

The third is of Fridley Middle School, where a group of “EBD” (Emotionally, Behaviorally Disabled) middle school students, coached by their two teachers and special education graduate students from Augsburg College, have experienced what we call an “empowerment pedagogy,” Public Achievement.” An empowering pedagogy contrasts with the dominant behavioralist pedagogy. The middle school students organized two projects of significance, one to bring solar power to their school, the other on homelessness. Both involved interaction with politicians, businesses, academics and others. As Cheryl McClellan puts it below, they transformed themselves and the school culture in the process.

 “Students labeled Emotional Behavioral Disability (EBD)  are tucked out of sight in basement classrooms or in the furthest corners of schools.  They may go to school, but they are not part of the school culture.  Public Achievement offered a way to change this, and it did. Leaders and visionaries have emerged from this group of students labeled as “behavior problems.” The students have announced their presence to the school community and redefined what it means to be in an EBD special education program.” Cheryl McClellan, Public Achievement coach

Fridley Middle School can be understood as a seedbed for the revitalization of ‘democracy colleges.” More broadly, is is a site for an emerging freedom movement in the 21st century. It points toward a politics which breaks us free of the constraints, labels, stigmatizations, and mystifications of technocratic societies. When connected knowing is understood as a politics, not simply a set of relational practices, it is central to this movement.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.