starting the 9th annual Summer Institute of Civic Studies

The 9th annual Summer Institute of Civic Studies begins this morning and continues for two weeks, with 6½ hours of seminar discussion daily.  This year’s participants hold degrees in religion and literature, social policy, social welfare, international relations, political theory, philosophy, management, education, public administration, communications, geography, and sociology. They come from Liberia, the Philippines, Latvia,  Colombia, Nigeria, China, and the US. And they come from graduate programs, faculty positions, or staff roles at Brandeis, Harvard, North Carolina Agricultural and Technical University, Penn State, Sheffield, Syracuse, University of Colorado, University of Ottawa, University of the Philippines-Los Banos, University of South Florida, Vanderbilt, the UN mission in Liberia, the US Embassy in Brazil, the Chicago Community Trusts, and the private sector.

One of our inspirations is this “Framing Statement” by Harry Boyte, Stephen Elkin, Jane Mansbridge, Elinor Ostrom, Karol Soltan, Rogers Smith, and me.  At one point in the Statement, the “civic ideal” is defined (in part) as “Public spiritedness, or the commitment to the public good, the res publica (to make explicit the republican roots of this idea in the Western tradition), a certain form of patriotism, a loyalty directed toward political communities.”

I like to present the ideal of public spiritedness in this way. If you look around a university, you will see lots of people asking the following questions:

  • What is going on? For instance, who is in poverty? How is the global climate changing?
  • What causes these patterns and what would change them? For example, would a global carbon tax reduce emissions?
  • How should things be? (What is justice?)
  • What should be done–for example, by the government?

But if you’re public-spirited, your question is different. As a public-spirited citizen, you ask:

  • “What should we do?”

A “Copernican turn” is a terrible cliché and sounds arrogant. But it works as a metaphor for what the authors on our syllabus have tried to accomplish. Copernicus kept all the planets and other heavenly models from the old system; he just moved the sun to the center. Civic Studies retains all the components (governments, markets, etc.) of standard social science and political theory, but it moves the citizen to the center. It’s an effort to theorize rigorously from the perspective of “we.”

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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.