the Women’s Studies/Civic Studies analogy

In introducing Civic Studies, I am increasingly using an analogy to Women’s Studies. This is how it goes:

In the 1960s, a political movement–known retrospectively as Second-Wave Feminism–developed, with the goals of liberating women and achieving gender equality. That movement had intellectual leaders, including academics and independent writers. They shared political goals with the movement but they also had intellectual objectives: to challenge the invisibility of women in all fields of study (from cancer research to classical history), to explore issues related to gender, and to develop novel theories and methodologies that emerged from thinking as and about women. One strategy for accomplishing those goals was to create women’s studies as a discipline, with all that entailed: journals, conferences, and courses. Apparently, the first women’s studies course was taught at Cornell in 1969, and the first two degree programs were launched in 1970. The courses could be pedagogically innovative, but what really defined them was their subject matter and the developing canon of assigned writers. Of course, participants did not hold uniform ideas but engaged in a rich debate. They have built up a new discipline, developed several generations of scholars, challenged and altered virtually all the other disciplines, and offered insights and information to political and social movements.

Likewise …

Since the late 1980s, there has been a movement to restore the role of active, responsible, collaborating citizens in the creation and the governance of communities. It has arisen to counter trends–centralization, marketization, consumerism, crony capitalism, and positivism–that marginalize citizens. Perhaps it does not deserve comparison to Second Wave Feminism, although if we take a global perspective, it has had striking successes (see this World Bank volume, village democracy in India, or the many cases described in Participedia). This civic renewal movement has an intellectual component led by prominent academics along with some independent writers (e.g., Parker Palmer, Frances Moore Lappé). They too have confronted a problem of invisibility within the academy. Too much research across the social and behavioral sciences, the humanities, and the professional disciplines ignores what I would call “citizens”: people who combine facts, strategies, and values to define and address social issues in common with peers. Citizens are invisible because of artificial distinctions between facts and values and because of research methods that miss human agency. In response, the intellectuals involved in Civic Studies are beginning to build up courses, journals, conferences, and allied efforts (e.g., Civic Science). Again, the pedagogy may be innovative, but this is not an educational reform movement. Our goals are rather to develop a new discipline, to alter the other disciplines, to derive new insights by thinking about and as citizens, and to inform political and social movements that renew civic life.

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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