I’m in Dayton, OH, for a seminar at the Kettering Foundation. I had written a chapter last fall describing the interaction of two generations on our college campuses. I wrote that some Boomer professors (ex-participants in the tumultuous sixties and seventies), “developed a new perspective” during the 1980s and 1990s. “While still reformist and egalitarian,” they became “increasingly pragmatic, open-ended, and solicitous of institutions, of existing communities, of civic culture, and of public deliberation, regardless of its outcome.” Meanwhile, they took new scholarly interest in public deliberation, civil society, civic virtue, and related themes. In the 1980s, they encountered Gen-X students who were alienated from formal politics but idealistic and interested in direct service. The result was a rash of experimentation, including service-learning, deliberation in classrooms and on campuses, community-based research, and work that celebrated cultural diversity as an asset.
A colleague wrote a spirited critique of my chapter, as lengthy as my own contribution. She argued that the real trends in higher education during the period that I described included a neoconservative assault on intellectual freedom and a rise of economic insecurity that undermined democracy. Under those circumstances, she implied, it was futile to retreat into small-scale service-learning and community-research projects. We don’t need civil deliberation as much as radical, ideological critique. Those who do civic work on campuses present ourselves as non-ideological and open to all views; but actually we are moderates or incrementalists, closed to more radical alternatives.
The discussion began. Unfortunately, my colleague was on the phone (rather than present in person) because her flight had been delayed by 24 hours at O’Hare. Suddenly, a disembodied corporate voice in the background told her to get on the plane, and she had to stop participating. That seemed to support her point about the source of real power in contemporary life.
But seriously: No one who promotes civic renewal is ideologically neutral. Certainly, I have an ideological position (a relatively comprehensive worldview) that supports my own commitment to civic work, at least at this moment. My view includes these premises: people can create wealth through voluntary collective action in a society like ours; although private property is fine, capital mobility is problematic; it’s possible to build economic institutions that are rooted in communities; social problems have cultural roots and cannot be fully solved through welfare programs; mid-20th-century public institutions are obsolete but there are emerging models that are less centralized.
Although I believe these premises–provisionally–I don’t like to use them as arguments in favor of civic work. That’s not because I’m afraid of controversy, but rather because I recognize that people come to service-learning, deliberation, local media work, and other civic activities for a variety of reasons. That heterogeneity seems healthy to me. I don’t think it’s necessary to spell out a comprehensive worldview that would alienate some potential partners. Like any social movement, the movement for civic renewal requires some ideololgical ambiguity to allow it to encompass diversity.