my remarks introducing Civic Studies at the American Political Science Association

(Chicago) According to the official definition of the American Political Science Association, “Political science is the study of governments, public policies and political processes, systems, and political behavior.” In other words, it is a generally impersonal and positivistic investigation into how certain kinds of processes (labeled “politics”) actually work. It is not a discussion of what you and I should do to make the world better.

This modern definition may seem obvious but it reflects a shift. In 1901, President Arthur Hadley of Yale had argued for “political education” that would enhance the motivations, virtues, skills, and knowledge that people needed to be good citizens. He wrote, “A man may possess a vast knowledge with regard to the workings of our social and political machinery, and yet be absolutely untrained in those things which make a good citizen.” But by 1933, University of Chicago President Robert Hutchins announced, “‘education for citizenship’ has no place in the university.”

This shift at the university level also had implications for how we teach children and adolescents. From the 1920s through the 1960s, most high school students took courses entitled “civics” or “problems of democracy” that investigated the students’ role in community life and how they could address public problems together. The assigned textbooks tended to address the students as “you” and invited consideration of what you, the citizen, should do. Both courses have now almost vanished from the curriculum, but a third class, “American government,” remains highly prevalent, reaching nearly 90 percent of all high school graduates. This course mimics college-level political science in its impersonal treatment of institutions and processes.

At times, the APSA has actually been hostile to forms of civic education that are normative and concerned with the role of citizens. A 1971 report by argued that the job of political education was to provide “knowledge about the ‘realities’ of political life.” According to this report, most high school civics teachers imparted “a naïve, unrealistic, and romanticized image of political life which confuses the ideals of democracy with the realities of politics.” Understanding and teaching the realities of politics would be another apt definition of mainstream political science.

I think the impact on k-12 civic education has been harmful. And the APSA’s definition implies a misguided view of politics that distorts even the most advanced scholarship in the discipline. My colleagues and I are using the phrase “Civic Studies” to describe a nascent discipline that would put citizens back at the center and combine empirical, normative, and strategic analysis. The flourishing of Civic Studies would have consequences for civic education at the k-12 level. It would reorient political science and the other social sciences. And it would connect academic work to global movements for civic renewal.When I invoked the word “citizen,” I did not mean someone who possesses legal rights and responsibilities in relation to a particular government, but rather a member of one or more communities, which may range from a block of houses or a single church to a nation-state to the whole earth. If you are a citizen, you want to address these communities’ problems and influence their directions, but more than that, you want to make them through your work, your thought, your passion. You want to be a co-creator of your worlds.

For you, political science and other forms of scholarship ought to be resources. With more than 300,000 different new books published in the US every year (not to mention articles, websites, old books, and works from overseas), you can surely find valuable texts to read. And yet, overwhelmingly, scholarship is not addressed to you as a citizen.

The social sciences are most useful as sources of descriptive and causal facts. You need facts to be an active and responsible citizen. Who controls the traffic light at your corner or the incarceration rate in your state? Would raising the high school graduation rate lower the incarceration rate? How much would that cost? What does the public think about taxation and education? The social sciences present themselves as providers of such empirical information.

Almost all students of these disciplines are taught that truth is elusive because the observer has biases. The social scientist should work hard to overcome or minimize biases, using elaborate techniques for that purpose (for example, double-blind clinical trials; or achieving agreement among many observers). But since such efforts will never fully succeed, social scientists are told to disclose and acknowledge their biases as limitations or caveats. They then present the facts as best they can.

Once they convey what they believe is true, their readers are supposed to apply values to decide what ought to be done. For instance, unemployment is bad; it would be worth spending billions to lower unemployment. These two value propositions are not themselves results of social science. Citizens must bring values into the discussion because social scientists do not claim special expertise about values.

Once we put facts together with values, we can make recommendations for society. And once we have recommendations, we can act effectively—or hope that someone else acts—to improve society.

That is the implicit, standard model. It is widely taught in graduate schools. It explains how most scholars approach social issues and the division of labor in their disciplines. It trickles down to high school government class. But the standard model presents a host of problems, some well-known and some a little subtler.

First, purported facts are always imbued with norms. Education, for example, is related to employment—but what is education? The average number of years that people spend in school looks like a hard number, an objective fact, but no one believes it’s worth measuring unless it is a proxy for education, rightly understood. The real definition of education is a process that enhances human flourishing. Thus measuring education requires a theory of the human good. According to the standard model taught to social scientists, moral theories are just biases or opinions held by ordinary citizens that should be disclosed as biases if they influence scientists. But to call a theory of human flourishing a mere opinion or bias is to deny the difference between right and wrong. What we need is a good theory of the human good.

That brings me to the second criticism of the standard theory. It assumes that values are opinions, tastes, preferences, or biases. But moral assertions can be right or wrong. I am sitting on a chair; I must not kill a random stranger for fun. Both statements are right. The methods we use to know right from wrong are controversial, but it’s easy to see that some opinions about values are contemptibly wrong: not just Mussolini’s or Chairman Mao’s, but the opinions of everyday people who happily waste more than they create, burden society and the earth, and sow more sorrow than joy. To say that morality is a mere matter of opinion is to deny the existence of vice and evil.

We certainly do not experience making moral decisions as a matter of preferences or opinions, like choosing a flavor of ice cream. We feel that we are striving to make the right choices, to reach objectively the right conclusions, regardless of our own preferences and tastes. If that feeling is meaningful at all, then moral reflection must be some kind of inquiry into truth.

Third, empirical information influences norms. The fact that we can have reasonably stable democratic governments is an essential reason that we ought to have democratic governments. We have learned from experience, not only what works but what is important and attractive. If I thought we could revolutionize or abolish the family to enhance justice for children, I’d be interested in that idea, but I’d need a lot more examples of success before the pure philosophical argument became attractive. Most people think that “ought implies can”: if there is a moral obligation to do something, that act must be possible. I would add that sometimes, “can implies ought”: if something has been demonstrated to work well, we are obligated to do it. This is another way in which facts and values are intertwined.

Fourth, strategic considerations rightly influence norms. We might propose that everyone has a right to a job. I would agree with that. But then I owe an explanation of how everyone can be afforded a job without very bad effects on the economy, freedom, or work itself. And it’s not enough to say that a government could enact a particular package of reforms that would achieve that end. I must also ask what would cause an actual government to act in helpful ways. My statement that “everyone has a right to a job” could help if it proved persuasive. Or my statement could be unhelpful. It might gain no traction, provoke a public backlash, divide an existing political coalition, or lead to a massive new government program that does not work. Depending on the situation, I might do better advocating a particular reform in the welfare system that has a real prospect of passage. Unless I have a plan for getting everyone a job, my statement that everyone has a right to a job may be worse than no theory at all.

Fifth, strategy and values influence empirical evidence. For instance, how do we get the employment statistics that we have? They are not generated automatically. People struggled to persuade government agencies to collect certain job-related data. Those agencies defined “unemployment” so that you are unemployed if you once held a full-time job, were laid off, and are actively seeking employment, but not if you left high school to help raise your young sister. The definition of unemployment reflects choices that people struggle over—not only in their heads and on paper, but by taking political action to change what is measured. Meanwhile, other information is not available at all. In short, our values and strategic actions influence even the data we possess.

A citizen needs knowledge of rights and wrongs, facts and explanations, and strategies. The citizen should be accountable for all of that: explaining what she believes and why. Her strategies must include the citizen herself. For example, it is not strategy to say that the government should provide high-quality education for everyone. That is a wish. A strategy would explain how we—you and I—can get the government to provide such education. It is essential that the education is effective (that is the factual part) and that it enhances human lives (the values). Again, all three strands must be integrated, because there is just one fundamental question: What should you and I do?

I said “you and I” instead of just “I” because purely individual actions are usually ineffective, and also for a deeper reason—because the good life is lived in common. Toddlers demonstrate “parallel play,” sitting side-by-side but doing their own thing. With maturity comes the ability to play together, to decide together what to play, to learn from the other players, to bring new players into the game, and to make up new games. That is what we do when we are co-creators of a common world. Not only are the results better, but we lead deeper and richer lives when we strive together.

Scholarship is not well organized to serve people who see themselves as citizens, meaning co-creators of their common worlds. The disciplines that assume there may be a real difference between right and wrong (philosophy, political theory, theology, and some other portions of the humanities) are rigidly separated from the disciplines that deal with purported facts. The professional schools teach strategies to prospective business leaders, lawyers, and doctors, but no department teaches strategies for citizens. Philosophy addresses the nature of justice but not what actions available to you and to me might make the world more just. Political science, as I noted earlier, is positivistic and concerned with institutions and behavior; it is not an investigation of what you and I should do together.

Meanwhile, scholars often hold a peculiar stance toward practice. Consider an educational strategy, such as asking students to conduct community service as part of their courses. Some political scientists have used this practice, known as “service-learning,” in their own teaching, and others have criticized it as insufficiently political. (I think Meira Levinson would take that latter position.) In any case, I offer it as an example; the same analysis would apply to medical treatments or welfare programs—to any body or field of practice that involves human beings.

The standard scholarly stance is to determine whether the practice “works” by collecting and analyzing evidence of impact. If the practice does work, the scholarly findings can arm practitioners with favorable evidence, persuade policymakers to invest in it, and contribute to general knowledge. If the practice doesn’t work, the scholarship implies that it should stop. Scholarly authors do not disclose their feelings of hope, satisfaction, or disappointment when they publish their results

But if service-learning “works,” why is that so? Surely because dedicated practitioners stuck with the idea even in the face of evidence that it was not successful in the early attempts and improved their methods. For them, service-learning was not a hypothesis to be tested and rejected if proved wrong. It was a practice that embodied empirical, strategic, and value assumptions. Perhaps the practitioners hoped to engage students in service because they were communitarians who believe that the good life requires close and caring interactions. Or perhaps they sought economic equality and hoped to boost the job prospects of disadvantaged youth by engaging them in service. No doubt, their commitments varied, but they built a community of practitioners with some loyalty to each other, whose actual methods have evolved. Their commitments and the community they produced are fundamental; the methods and outcomes constantly shift.

Scholars of service-learning can be understood as part of the same community. Like the practitioners, the scholars are motivated by core beliefs. They have not randomly selected service-learning as an “intervention” to assess; they hope that it will work because it reflects their commitments. They study it in order to build a case for it while also providing constructive feedback to the practitioners, with whom they have formed working relationships. When they get negative results, their loyalty keeps them looking for solutions. All of this is perfectly healthy, except that the scholars’ hope, loyalty, and other emotions and values are not considered scientific, so they leave them out of their professional writing. Most research on service-learning makes it sound like a laboratory experiment.

Civic Studies is a strategy for reorienting academic scholarship so that it does address citizens—and learns from them in turn. In fact, it treats scholars as citizens, engaged with others in creating their worlds. Civic Studies integrates facts, values, and strategies. Those who practice this nascent discipline are accountable to the public for what they believe to be true, to be good, and to work. They are accountable for the actual results of their thoughts and not just the ideas themselves.

Civic Studies is being built by scholars and practitioners who share commitments to particular forms of civic action in the world. That is the connection between Civic Studies and civic renewal.

For example, people have successfully managed common resources such as forests and fish stocks throughout human history, even though a simplistic theory of human interaction would suggest that these resources must be destroyed by the Tragedy of the Commons and related problems. The late Elinor and Vincent Ostrom and their students, often known as the “Bloomington School,” studied how citizens successfully manage common goods. They learned from practical experience and contributed sophisticated political theory and formal modeling of human interactions; indeed, Elinor Ostrom won the Nobel Prize in economics. They developed practical guidance for citizens who try to manage common goods. They had an implicit moral framework in which good citizenship meant overcoming collective-action problems. My colleague on this panel, Paul Aligica, describes and develops this first stream of work.

Although the management of common-pool resources is very old, it is not static. Today, people are busily working to protect various threatened commons: watersheds and fisheries, public libraries and other sources of free public information, cyberspace (understood as an open network of privately owned components), and the global atmosphere—to name just a few examples. Movements to protect and enhance the commons are one aspect of the civic renewal movement, which Carmen Sirianni and Lewis Friedland named as such about ten years ago and which I describe in detail in my about-to-be published book, We Are the Ones We Have Been Waiting For: The Promise of Civic Renewal in America.

I would owe a longer explanation of what “civic renewal” means and why certain practices deserve that name while others don’t. Instead, I will just offer a quick list of these practices. In addition to efforts to protect common-pool resources, I would name broad-based community organizing; community-based economic development; community-based participatory research; deliberative democracy as a set of practical experiments; the creation of new forms of public media; and educational programs that enlist young people in deliberation and collaboration. Each of these streams of practice involves a combination of actual projects, organizing, theory, and empirical research. Each reflects a normative commitment to enhancing ordinary people’s capacity to make their worlds. Each also reflects hard-nosed strategic thinking about what will flourish in the real world. In each case, the interested scholars are part of the same community of practice as the practitioners.

These are the streams that feed into the larger river of Civic Studies.


American Political Science Association, “What is Political Science?” (n.d.) For context, see James W. Ceasar, “The Role of Political Science and Political Scientists in Civic Education” (Washington, DC: American Enterprise Institute, 2013). Arthur Twining Hadley, “Political Education,” in The Education of the American Citizen (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1901), p. 135. Nathaniel Schwartz, “How Civic Education Changed (1960 to the present), MS paper, quoted with the permission of the author. See also United States Bureau of Education, Teaching of Community Civocs  (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1915).

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.