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November 1, 2004

against "messaging"

[On the plane returning from the American Library Association meeting in California]. The American Library Association (ALA) is committed to protect and expand the "public domain" or "knowledge commons"—that vast and growing heritage of information, ideas, and culture that has traditionally been free, but that is now threatened with excessive control as companies try to copyright old material, patent new software, and develop technology to block the lending and sharing of ideas. The public domain is a classic example of a public good—it benefits everyone to a fairly small and intangible degree, but a few special interests benefit much more from controlling it. Therefore, it is extremely difficult to mobilize a mass constituency to preserve it.

The same could be said of most causes I work on, especially political/electoral reform, civic renewal, and civic education. Since the 1970s, the progressive national organizations have developed a toolkit for mobilizing people in favor of these public goods—and other ones, such as environmental protection. Their classic tools include: boiling down a complex message into a short slogan or statement, testing that statement in focus groups, advertising it, finding celebrities to endorse it, persuading allied groups to promote it, identifying cases and examples that boldly illustrate it, attacking enemies who oppose it, incorporating it into school curricula, and scaring people into thinking that it's a crucial cause. At a more practical and operational level, their toolkit includes mass mailings to raise funds, grants from foundations, mini-research reports, conferences, websites, bumper-stickers, news alerts, and lobbyists.

I have ethical objections to this approach; I find it manipulative and often arrogant (because the promoters of a message assume that they know the truth about their issue). But even if my ethical qualms are overly squeamish, there is another problem with the standard progressive toolkit: it no longer works. True, the environmental movement used all the tools I've mentioned and succeeded in changing Americans' thinking and public policy. But we have only so much attention and time, and environmentalists now occupy a big piece of it. There is less room for other public interests.

An alternative strategy is to encourage and organize ordinary people to experience public good directly and creatively. For example, the base of the environmental movement consists of people who know and love nature from personal experience. The base of the movement for better civic education is social studies teachers. Likewise, we need to get people organized to enjoy—and contribute to—the public domain of knowledge and information. If we are successful, people will not have to be mobilized, but will seek out a "message" and a "policy agenda" from groups like the ALA. They will have enough direct experience that they will be able to analyze and criticize this message and agenda; thus the national organizations will be accountable to them. If people at the grassroots accept the message, then they will be motivated, knowledgeable, and organized enough to promote it effectively.

This strategy depends upon institutions with deep roots in communities. Libraries are perfect examples. That is why I (as a non-librarian) am interested enough in the ALA to have attended several meetings. It is also why I would be disappointed if the ALA put its scarce resources into "messaging" instead of organizing people to create public goods in libraries.

Update: Brad Rourke made a similar argument in the Christian Science Monitor recently. And be sure to check out Harry Boyte's comment on this post. Frederick Emrich has an interesting and persuasive reply to this post.

November 1, 2004 3:50 PM | category: revitalizing the left | Comments


Peter and colleagues interested in strengthening information commons,

I agree very strongly with the idea that a commons movement needs anchoring in "institutions with deep roots in communities," such as libraries. I would only add that libraries' roots, like the roots of every public and civic institution, have weakened in recent decades as the model of professional practice has become more disciplinary and much less focused on work in actual places. Put differently, "civic" leadership in professions has eroded sharply, and expert (and moral) models of leadership have become predominant.

It requires a broad process of change in professional practice and professional education to reverse these trends - as true for librarians as for clergy (and, on the governmental level, civil servants of all kinds -- another theme, we'll take up at the Center for Democracy and Citizenship after the election), if we are to see a deep civic and democratic revitalization, I'm convinced.

Below is the newsletter I do for the University of Minnesota's Council on Public Engagement (the web site is http://www1.umn.edu/civic/, which includes back issues). It takes up the theme of civic leadership and its cultivation, and has a striking analysis I heard recently at Duke, from Mary Fulkerson of the Divinity School, on why mainstream religion has lost much of its public character.

Thanks, Peter, for this interesting report.

Harry Boyte

Ideas for Action 2004, # 11 Civic Engagement News
To: Colleagues in Civic Engagement
From: Harry C. Boyte, Editor
Date: 11/2/2004
Civic Engagement News is an electronic newsletter associated with the Council on Public Engagement (COPE) at the University of Minnesota, although the editor alone is responsible for its contents. It is sent free of charge to colleagues interested in civic engagement ideas and developments, especially in higher education. If you would like us to take your name off the list or add others, please notify Harry Boyte, hboyte@hhh.umn.edu. COPE is a University-wide body charged by Vice President Robert Jones with strengthening the public mission and practice across the full range of University activities. It defines civic engagement as “the partnership of university knowledge and resources with those of the public, civic, and private sectors to enrich scholarship and research; enhance curricular content and process; prepare effective, productive citizens; address critical societal issues and solve public problems; and contribute to a democratic way of life.” See www.umn.edu/civic for updates and news. Feedback is welcome.

In this issue

Leadership and the democracy role of higher education

Educating for place: the case of clergy

Public sociology at the University of Minnesota

Next issue

Shifting paradigms in residence life: the Colgate model

Imagining America examines tenure as a public question

Leadership for a democratic society

In the past two months I have been on the road, traveling to eleven colleges and universities (South Dakota State University, University of Minnesota, University of Michigan, Naropa College, Duke, University of Southern California, Occidental College, Ferris State University, Morehead State University, University of Western Kentucky, and the University of Wisconsin at Eau Claire). I talked about my recently published book, Everyday Politics: Reconnecting Citizens and Public Life (PennPress, 2004), and also about the growing democracy ferment in higher education. The overall argument is the need to see our institutions as “agents and architects of a democratic way of life” – expanding democracy from simply state and elections to the concept of democratic society. It has been a fascinating season to engage in discussions with students, faculty, staff, community organizers and leaders about the meaning of democracy, politics, citizenship, the role of higher education – and leadership.

Higher education institutions, especially regional universities, stress their role in preparing students for leadership roles in community and civic life. At regional universities, the large majority of students come from surrounding areas. They return, as professionals and civic leaders, to help shape the future of their communities. As Michael Moore, Provost at Morehead State University in Eastern Kentucky puts it, the future of our university and the future of the region are inseparable.

As crucial as educating students for leadership may be, the question of what leadership means in democratic terms is rarely discussed. I am convinced that examination of paradigms of leadership is essential if the civic engagement movement is to become a serious force for democratic renewal.

David Brooks in a column on October 23 in the New York Times (“The More Things Change…) joins the issue. Brooks examines the remarkable fact that for all the vast changes of the last four years – war, recession, corporate scandals, demographic shifts – “the political landscape looks almost exactly the same. We’re still divided right down the middle” into red and blue Americas. What, he puzzles, is the “deep, tectonic fissure so fundamental that it is unaffected by the enormous shocks?”

Brooks concludes that clashing models of leadership lie behind the divisions. On the one hand, Republicans look to “straight talking men of faith” in turbulent times. “The…leader doesn’t have to be book smart…but he should have a clear, broad vision of America’s exceptional role in the world.” On the other hand, Democrats “are more apt to emphasize leadership skills such as being knowledgeable and thoughtful.” Democrats look to experts “well versed in the inner workings of government.” Both have roots in American traditions.

The flaw in Brooks’ argument is that he misses a third model, the different conception of leadership to be found in American traditions of a self-reliant, productive, energetic citizenry which always has had grave doubts about the ability of any leader to save us. In this approach, government is a crucial resource for citizens, but not the center of the civic universe – that role belongs to citizens. A conception of the citizen leader, indeed, has woven through the history of higher education in America, generating citizen teachers, citizen lawyers, citizen nurses and doctors, citizen businesspeople, and many other examples of community leaders who understand their civic role as integral to their identity and work.

As scholars of professions and work cultures such as Tom Bender, William Sullivan, and Susan Faludi have documented, the civic dimensions of professional practices and work generally have dramatically eroded in recent decade. Professionals increasingly came to see themselves as members of self-referential disciplines, not as citizens of places. They lost skills of horizontal interaction with fellow citizens; they shifted from work with to service delivery and expert advice to others. As Jane Addams warned prophetically in 1902, professionals withdrew from a strong identification with a common civic culture. Robert Reich makes much the same point, in his argument that knowledge workers have “seceded” in their identities from the society.

Retrieving civic understandings, practices, and identities of leadership and professional practice is essential for democracy. This is citizen leadership that tackles tough problems in a public-spirited, non-ideological, problem solving fashion and rejects the role of rescuer or outside fixer. Such leaders are collaborative and catalytic, tapping the talents of other citizens. For all the ways such leadership has eroded, there is also evidence of its revival. The Leadership for a Changing World partnership of the Ford Foundation, the Advocacy Institute, and the Wagner School of Public Service at New York University documents the development of such citizen leadership. Citizen leadership has also been cultivated in a self-conscious, disciplined way by the broad based citizen organizations in networks like the Industrial Areas Foundation, Gamaliel, PICO and others that involve several million families, in some of the lowest income areas of the country. As David Cohen, co-director of the Advocacy Institute observes, the new citizen leadership can be found in all regions of the United States, in cities, suburbs, and rural areas. It includes people born in the United States and people who are new to our country. It cuts across race and ethnicity and religion; indeed, public-minded citizen organizations that engage people across lines of faith are crucial schools for public leadership, and often describe themselves in such terms.

Citizen leaders return us to a broader conception of democracy as a way of life built by citizens on an ongoing basis in a myriad of settings – not simply elections. Jimmy Carter gave a compelling example in his Farewell Address, January 14, 1981, that intimated his future decades of peacemaking labors around the world. "In a few days,” said Carter, “I will lay down my official responsibilities in this office, to take up once more the only title in our democracy superior to that of President, the title of citizen."

What will it take for higher education to develop leaders who call others to the work of citizenship and join in the work themselves? Forthcoming issues of Civic Engagement News will explore this question from different angles. One key element involves educating students to work effectively and collaboratively in actual places.

Educating clergy for work in places: Mary McClintock Fulkerson

Education of the clergy in America illustrates the broader erosion in professionals’ identification with places and the skills of engagement to work in places. In a response to my presentation at Duke University, Mary Fulkerson, professor at the Duke Divinity School, described this pattern.

Fulkerson draws on the scholarship of Edward Farley, her professor at Vanderbilt, whose book, Theologia: The Fragmentation and Unity of Theological Education, treats the evolution of divinity school and seminary education from the middle ages to the modern period. Farley describes how theological education in the modern period especially came to stress preparation for the profession of clergy, with the four elements of theology and ethics, Biblical study, church history, and practical matters.

Farley’s critique is that “theology” has become disconnected from the ongoing work of clergy and congregations, the possession of academics. “Theology,” Farley writes, “has undergone an unfortunate narrowing and specialization,” while the clergy are not trained to “think theologically.” Rather, their education is “centered…on the technical problems of bridging theory to ministerial practice.” The loss is not only the clergy’s, but also the congregational members’. Members of Protestant denominations and Catholics, alike, have little ability to engage in a deep interrogation of the tenets and texts of their faith. “How is it that high school age church members move easily and quickly into the complex world of computers, foreign languages, DNA, and calculus, and cannot even make a beginning in historical-critical interpretation of a single text of Scripture?”

Over the last several years Fulkerson has been active in a broad-based citizen organization in Durham, Congregations, Associations and Neighborhoods (CAN), affiliated with the Industrial Areas Foundation network of citizen groups. Involvement in CAN has, in her words, “enhanced her social imagination.” She realized that her “training as a theologian included no knowledge of how the world works. Only when I got involved with CAN did I get a sense of being able to act in the social and political world. The difference between being able only to theorize and to be a part of action in the world is huge.”

Such experience has also made her aware of another dimension of the limits of current education of clergy. What is described as “practice” courses pertain to matters internal to the life of congregation, topics such as preaching, counseling, and church organization. The skills and habits of engagement with the places in which congregations are located – from the neighborhood to the larger community – are missing. What are the patterns of economic and political life in communities? How to understand different cultures? What are practical ways to engage people of diverse interests and views? What are skills of effective civic and political action? Almost none of these themes are addressed in sustained ways. In Fulkerson’s judgment, the separation of the profession of clergy and congregations from the communities in which they are located is exacerbated by the tendency of religious bodies to see themselves as counterculture islands, apart from a sinful world. The overall effect is a weakened public life, for congregations, clergy, and the larger society.

Fulkerson is beginning a discussion with colleagues at Duke to explore how to enrich the curriculum with skills, knowledge, and habits that will better prepare divinity school students for the public work they will do.

Public sociology at the University of Minnesota

Professional education is not the only example of distancing of academic research and teaching from public life. As Kent Sandstrom, professor of sociology at the University of Northern Iowa, puts it in the current issue of The Midwest Sociologist, in recent decades, “The flagship journals privileged the construction of particular kinds of theory and models of theory-building that directed little attention toward the troubles and issues experienced by people in contemporary society.” Yet there are clear signs of change. Michael Burawoy, the immediate past president of the American Sociological Association (ASA), made the theme of his presidency “public sociology. President-elect Rob Benford’s choice of theme is “Mobilizing for Change.” The University of Minnesota Sociology Department, one of the most highly ranked departments in the nation, is helping to generate this ferment. As Ron Aminzade, department chair, puts it in Footnotes, the disciplinary publication for this year’s ASA convention, “At the departmental level we have worked to create a supportive climate for diverse forms of public sociology,” from integration of community and service learning opportunities into fifteen courses to a strong emphasis on public sociological research. “The public scholarship of our faculty members takes them around the globe,” he argues.

The department sees itself as taking a leading role in the University of Minnesota in the larger process of “reasserting our civic mission as a land grant public institution.” The overall goal, says Aminzade, is to change the University image for many in the public world as “an intimidating and unapproachable elitist institution, disconnected from the needs of local communities.” This means, in his view, building mutually beneficial public partnerships, transforming the academic culture and institutional identity, and making public engagement an institutional priority across the University.

November 2, 2004 11:29 AM | Comments (1) | posted by Harry Boyte

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