the Summer Institute of Civic Studies

For the next two weeks, I will be spending six hours of every day co-teaching the Summer Institute of Civic Studies (syllabus here). We will cover roughly 18 separate topics, and I will blog about just a few of those.

Near the beginning of the first session, I always read this quote:

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

  • Who recognizes that quote?
  • Who wrote it?
  • Do you have it printed out over your laser printer?

Was Margaret Mead right?

  • Yes, to inspire people to work together
  • Yes, to think about the scale of human action where the minuscule powers of an individual obtain enough leverage to count but are not lost entirely in the mass. Civil society is the world of “we,” but not such a huge or abstract “we” that “I” no longer matters. It is politics at the human scale.
  • But no to suggest that small group action is always successful or always good. It often fails. Sometimes it is bad. Mussolini led a small group of thoughtful and committed citizens.

A cynic might counter: “Never doubt the capacity of large groups of ignorant and selfish people to squelch good ideas and make the world worse.”

We need to ask …

  1. When can “a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens” change the world? Also, how can we get people like that?
  2. How can they be most effective?
  3. What are good means and good ends for these groups?

Citizens need a combination of facts, strategies, and values relevant to their own discretionary action. This combination is rare because …

  1. Hard-boiled political science finds that small groups of voluntary actors have little impact.

For example, Detroit is full of impressive voluntary efforts to address the city’s crisis. But how much can they really matter in the face of losing more than 50% of the city’s population, a high school dropout rate of 75%, a fivefold increase in incarceration since 1970 in Michigan, and pervasive racism?

Another example: journalists usually depict political campaigns as competitions between teams of professionals who make tactical and strategic choices. But political science generally finds that all their choices matter less than macroeconomic factors.

One the other hand, small groups can make a difference, and in any case it is our moral obligation to try. To work alone is ineffective and to think only of the whole society gives us no strategies.

    2. Social scientists are ambivalent about whether research and teaching should be “realistic” or reformist, illustrated by a pendulum swing in political science:

The discipline began in the late nineteenth century with ambitions to enhance civic engagement. In 1901, President Hadley of Yale had argued, “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.” He argued for civic education that would enhance motivations, virtues, and skills as well as knowledge. By 1933, President Hadley’s view was giving way to that of University of Chicago President Robert Hutchins, who announced, “‘education for citizenship’ has no place in the university.”

A 1971 report by the American Political Science Association argued that the role of political education was to provide “knowledge about the ‘realities’ of political life.” According to this report, most high school civics instruction imparted “a naïve, unrealistic, and romanticized image of political life which confuses the ideals of democracy with the realities of politics.”

    3. A cult of expertise, which suggests that there is no need for people to learn to be active and effective citizens.

The APSA Committee of Seven’s argued in 1914 that citizens “should learn humility in the face of expertise.”

    4. Philosophy and political theory deal with the wrong scales. Human agency takes place at the moderate scale. Not just micro (may I lie?) and not just macro (“the basic structure of society”).
    5. Political philosophy does not consider strategy. It is not therefore answering the question, “What should be done?”
    6. Positivistic social science is uncomfortable about values and treats them as opinions, not potential truths.

But there are exceptions. For instance, later today we will discuss the theory of Common Pool Resources.  Scholars of Common Pool resources, such as the late, lamented Elinor Ostrom study how communities manage common property, such as fisheries and forests.

Later, we will consider Deliberative Democracy. Scholars of deliberative democracy investigate the impacts on citizens, communities, and policies when people talk about public issues in structured settings.

My colleagues and I are part of the Positive Youth Development research agenda, studying how offering youth opportunities to contribute to their communities benefits them developmentally.

These are empirical research efforts, committed to facts and truth. They do not seek to celebrate, but to critically evaluate, their research subjects. Nevertheless, an obvious goal is to make the practical work succeed by identifying and demonstrating positive impacts and by helping to sort out the effective strategies from the ineffective ones. They show the virtues of loyalty and hope.

Those motives are largely hidden, because positivist social science cannot handle value-commitments on the part of researchers; it treats them as biases to be minimized and disclosed if they prove impossible to eliminate.

Often when readers the search for motives is critical and suspicious: one tries to show that a given research project is biased by some value-judgment, cultural assumption, or self-interest on the scholars’ part. But we can look for motives in an appreciative spirit, believing that an empirical research program in the social sciences can only be as good as its core values.

Note that it is not at all obvious why we should hope that Common Property Resource Management, Deliberative Democracy, and Positive Youth Development work. Centralized management would work be more efficient and consistent.

Ultimately, all three of my examples are anchored in commitments that I would describe as “Kantian” but not purely so.

In our culture, it is a risky strategy for scholars to admit their core moral commitments. The smartest move is to pretend that a research program is simply scientific and all the outcomes of interest are utilitarian. But those assumptions have the disadvantage of being wrong. They distort research in various subtle but damaging ways. For example, if we try to justify youth service programs because they cut dropout rates and teen pregnancy, we are likely to shift those programs in the direction of non-controversial service, when the real (but undisclosed) motive is to make young people into political leaders. Besides, when we are influenced by an implicit moral philosophy, we may make judgments that we would not actually endorse or defend if we spelled them out clearly.

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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