why we need theory for social change

Margaret A. Post, Elaine Ward, Nicholas V. Longo, and John Saltmarsh have edited the new volume, Publicly Engaged Scholars: Next-Generation Engagement and the Future of Higher Education. It’s a great anthology that describes 30 years of work reconnecting higher education to communities and proposes exciting futures for that movement. It highlights the work of a new generation of engaged scholars who are more diverse and in many ways more sophisticated and effective than their predecessors.

I wrote an Afterword entitled “Practice & Theory in the Service of Social Change.” Since many of the chapters by younger scholars are autobiographical, I allowed myself to reflect on my own experience as well.

When I was an undergraduate, I chanced upon a set of early discussions and experiments that helped create the current movement for engaged scholarship. I got to join a Wingspread meeting about national and community service that helped build momentum for George H.W. Bush’s Points of Light initiative and then AmeriCorps under Bill Clinton.

Meanwhile, back on campus, my student colleagues and I started a program that provided paid summer service internships for students who agreed to present their work to the local alumni clubs. …

Thanks to my role in student government, the clerical and technical workers’ union asked me to sit at the table in a series of round-the-clock negotiations with the university that narrowly averted a strike. The university’s lawyers studiously ignored my presence because they took the position that there were just two parties in a contractual dispute; questions of public impact and justification were irrelevant, and therefore no representatives of the community had a right to attend. …

Also during my undergraduate years, I encountered deliberative democracy in a seminar on Habermas and during an internship at the Kettering Foundation in Dayton, OH, which was then experimenting with practical deliberative democracy in the form of National Issues Forums.

That was 25-30 years ago, and in many ways, I am still in the same milieu–now a Trustee of Kettering and an Associate Dean of a college that promotes and studies service and civic engagement.

In the “Afterword,” I argue that the movement began as a result of deep and searching questions about the democracy and society as a whole. Some participants were motivated by the Habermasian argument that civil society is a space for the reasonable discourse that should generate public opinion, but it was being “colonized” by the market and bureaucratic states. Some thought more in the spirit of Habits of the Heart (1985) and believed that US society was becoming too atomized. Still others were involved in the debate about neoliberalism and the declining welfare state, either welcoming volunteerism as an alternative or seeing students’ civic engagement as a form of resistance to the market.

So the movement began with a rich and vital discussion of how to change America, which turned into concrete activities like service-learning and deliberative democracy as potential tools or tactics. The subsequent decades have brought much experimentation with those activities, as well as burgeoning research about them: do they work, why, and for whom? But I don’t think we are any clearer about how to change America–and the strategies that seemed to make sense in 1985 may now be obsolete.

In the “Afterword,” I acknowledge the value of the “emotions,” “embodied experiences,” and “personal narratives.” Yet, I argue,

we do face problems that can be posed in abstract and general terms. And I believe that to some degree, our experiences from service-learning, community-based participatory research, and campus/community partnerships have outrun our theories. Put more forcefully: we will be unable to address profound social problems until we strengthen our theoretical understanding of society, and that will come from books, data, and seminar rooms as well as from action in communities. …

This book has a generational focus and looks to younger scholars for new models and solutions. Those scholars will (and should) base many of their ideas on personal experience and identity. Their relatively diverse backgrounds and their relatively deep experience with engagement are assets. Yet I would also look to the next generation for groundbreaking theory, some of it highly abstract and challenging. The theories that are already embedded in their narratives must emerge; they may also need to develop new theoretical insights. We need theories not only about civic engagement, but also about how society works and what causes it to change for the better. Almost every successful social movement I can think of from the past has developed new bodies of such theory. The theories of gender that accompanied Second Wave Feminism or the range of theological and political philosophies that emerged because of the Civil Rights Movement are essential historical examples. I would expect nothing less from The Next Generation of Engagement.

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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