what qualifies a theorist to be part of civic studies?

We are almost halfway through the 2014 Summer Institute of Civic Studies at Tufts University. A group of 24 professors, graduate students, and civic leaders from many countries (only half are from the US) are deep into discussing several thousand pages of theoretical readings. We present the readings as an emerging–and disputable–canon for a field we call “civic studies.”

What qualifies an author to be included?

I have argued here that the only serious question for human beings as members of communities is: “What should we do?” Importantly, the question is not “What should be done?” which is much more commonly addressed in modern scholarship. Thus we must reform scholarship to make it address the citizen’s essential question.

A contributor to the nascent discipline of civic studies helps us to decide what we should do. A theorist of civic studies is someone who doesn’t just address that question in a particular context (e.g., “What should we parents of X school do to improve it?”). Instead, she or he offers guidance about broad categories of situations–perhaps about all situations that confront human beings. That is the screen through which I put potential contributors to the canon of civic studies.

So far this week, we have considered Jurgen Habermas, Elinor Ostrom, Robert Putnam, Harry Boyte, Albert Dzur, and Bent Flyvbjerg. Roberto Mangabeira Unger is up next.

As an example, Habermas addresses the question, “What should we do?” roughly as follows. It is a moral question, about what is right or just to do. It is not the question: “What do we want?” nor “What does our perspective, bias, or interest cause us to want?” We may have to choose against our desires or interests. The claim that something is right is like the claim that something is true. In both cases, we put the proposition before other human beings and seek their free agreement. If, for example, I assert that it would be right or just for me to pay lower taxes, then–if the conversation is free and public–I will have to give reasons persuasive to my fellow citizens. It won’t matter what my motives are. My arguments will have to be valid from others’ perspectives.

(By the way, if I make a claim about my motives–e.g., “I really only want to pay lower taxes because I want to help others,” that is a separate proposition that can also be tested by other human beings. They can look for consistency and other evidence of sincerity. Claims of justice, truth, beauty, and sincerity require different justifications but are alike in that they are all requests for free assent and they all promote reasonable inquiry.)

Thus what we should do is (a) whatever we decide to do in a very good conversation. But that implies (b) that we must participate in such conversations. And since they do not occur automatically, we must (c) work to make them happen, which is not just a matter of organizing and facilitating discussions but also of changing the incentives and rules that apply in public life so that democratic discussions flourish more. Finally, discussion by itself is insufficient to accomplish justice, so we must (d) press the economic and political systems to respond to reasonable public opinion.

This leaves much to be worked out–and is not ultimately satisfactory to me–but it qualifies Habermas as a civic theorist.

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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