The Good Society symposium on Civic Studies

The new issue of The Good Society (vol. 22, no. 2) includes a symposium on The Summer Institute of Civic Studies at Tufts University. The symposium articles are free and open on JSTOR. They are:

  • “The Summer Institute of Civic Studies: An Introduction” by Karol Soltan and me
  • “Civic Studies: Fundamental Questions, Interdisciplinary Methods,” by Alison K. Cohen, J. Ruth Dawley-Carr, Liza Pappas, and Alison Staudinger
  • “What Should You and I Do?: Lessons for Civic Studies from Deliberative Politics in the New Deal” by Timothy J. Shaffer
  • “Living Well Together: Citizenship, Education, and Moral Formation” by Elizabeth Gish and Paul Markham
  • “Civic Studies: Bringing Theory to Practice” by Katherine Kravetz
  • “The Civic Institute Relocated: Designing a Syllabus for Undergraduate Students at a Public University” by Susan Orr; and
  • “Deliberation and Civic Studies” by Matt Chick

As Karol Soltan and I write at the beginning of our introductory essay, the Summer Institute of Civic Studies is intended as a step in the development of a new discipline, by which we mean an intellectual community (a group of thinkers who learn from each other) that is institutionalized, with an association, a journal or journals, educational institutions, a recognized place in universities, conferences, and so on.

The aim of this symposium is to introduce the Summer Institute, mostly through the work of past participants. … Every year, it draws about 20 advanced graduate students, faculty, civic practitioners, and community leaders for two weeks of intensive discussions. Individuals have come from Bhutan, Singapore, Mexico, South Africa, Germany, the Netherlands, Canada, Israel, and all corners of the United States to participate.

Like any healthy intellectual community, civic studies is a field of debate; participants do not sing in unison. But they do have common premises and purposes that, among other things, draw 20 of them to Tufts each July. Those premises could be formulated in several overlapping ways:

1. The goal of civic studies is to develop ideas and ways of thinking helpful to citizens, understood as co-creators of their worlds. Note that we do not define “citizens” as official members of nation-states or other political jurisdictions. Nor does this formula invoke the word “democracy.” One can be a co-creator in many settings, ranging from loose social networks and religious congregations, to the globe. Not all of these venues are, or could be, democracies.

2. Civic studies asks Shaffer’s question: “What should we do?” It is thus inevitably about ethics (what is right and good?), about facts (what is actually going on?) and about strategies (what would work?). Good strategies may take many forms and use many instruments, but if a strategy addresses the question “What should we do?”, then it must guide our own actions. For many of us, institutions and institution-making are crucial to this enterprise. They embody ideals and values. They can also be seen as crucial resources.

3. At the very beginning of the Federalist Papers, Alexander Hamilton asks whether “societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are f orever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force.” Civic studies suggests that we can govern by reflection and choice. But more importantly, it looks for ways to make that happen. In other words, we are not especially concerned with an assessment of how much agency we actually have as reasoning citizens; we are concerned with enhancing our political or civic agency.

4. As co-founder of the Summer Institute and retiring editor of this journal Stephen Elkin reminds us elsewhere in this issue, [the Good Society’s] motto¬† is Walter Lippman’s statement that “the art of governing well has to be learned.” That is another way of formulating the task of civic studies.

Civic studies is an intellectual community in the making, based on an empirical observation that there are many thinkers, networks of thinkers (some overlapping), and traditions of thinking in a number of disciplines that share the goals listed above.

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.
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