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School Climate & Safety Opinion

Beyond Polarization: Education for Civic Repair

By Harry C. Boyte — February 09, 2017 4 min read
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Dear David,

Your comment about breaking out of binary thinking reminds me of remarks by Jenny Whitcher, a colleague who went to the Denver meeting on your report, Making Citizens, January 12.

Whitcher is faculty director of the Office of Professional Formation at the Iliff School of Theology. She came to the meeting because she was dismayed at what she sees as distortions in Making Citizens. She wrote that as you and others spoke, she constantly suppressed the urge to correct the record. She modelled a nonviolent philosophy, in my view, showing dignity, poise, and discipline.

Jenny also gained insights by listening to stories from families and faculty at the meeting. “Attending this event was a gift in helping me more deeply understand their argument,” she wrote. She saw that the report “is founded on experiences of isolation and anger.” For instance, she heard about a conservative family whose concerns on school curriculum had been disdainfully dismissed by school officials. She called for respectful conversation, which she sees as “key for our moving forward both in the academy and as a country.”

Last weekend I watched the YouTube video of the first launch event of Making Citizens, on January 10th in Washington, D.C. Stanley Kurtz, a Fellow at the Center for Ethics and Public Policy, accused me of practicing “rhetorical stealth” over decades, hiding commitments to socialism behind a “false front that disguises political goals.” He points to our Public Achievement youth civic education as “the most hard edged of all the programs described in Making Citizens.” The report itself charges that the whole civic engagement movement has adopted the stealth approach, using a “dictionary of deception.” Kurtz’s remarks are worth hearing, beginning about 55 minutes into the meeting on the YouTube video.

It is an ineluctable dynamic that when one polarizes, one purifies. This means eliminating the complexity of “the other side” that one sees as the enemy. In my view this is a serious problem of the NAS report. It collapses the vast diversity of the civic engagement movement into a left wing conspiracy. This is a caricature.

In the hope of conveying something of the problem with reductionism let me briefly sketch the evolution of my own thinking. Kurtz expresses the view that when I left the Democratic Socialists of America in 1981, after youthful involvement with socialist organizations, it was not a matter of conviction but of rhetorical strategy (“it’s far more likely that Boyte adopted the strategy of rhetorical stealth that he’s advocated for years”).

In fact my movement away from socialism came from reclaiming another tradition, described in my book CommonWealth: A Return to Citizen Politics (Free Press, 1989) that launched our work at the University of Minnesota. Against the dominant paradigm of left intellectuals endlessly preoccupied with Werner Sombart question in 1906, “Why is there no socialism in America?” I argued that the absence of socialism isn’t a deficiency. It is a strength. America has an alternative tradition of democracy based on civic autonomy and a citizen politics of “building the commonwealth.”

This tradition of civic life is sustained by the work of diverse citizens who create and take care of goods of common use, the commonwealth, like schools, colleges, libraries, parks, local government. It is also sustained by mediating structures like families, congregations, voluntary associations and ethnic and cultural groups. Such civic life depends on a deep ethos of citizenship and widespread education in civic skills. These skills, I would insist (here with Deborah Meier) that such skills of working across differences are best learned through “experiential education,” what we call public work, work in public, by publics, for public purposes. Civic life involves the kind of everyday citizen politics - not partisan politics -- in which people of different views negotiate a shared way of life.

Public work that builds citizenship takes place in schools and colleges and also in many other settings. Our work with Public Achievement began with a conservative working class Catholic parish and school, St. Bernard’s.

You and Kurtz also highlight the role of Saul Alinsky’s approach in my work. I appreciate Alinsky’s realism, but I have also written repeatedly about what I see as the shift in his approach from his first book, Reveille for Radicals, rooted in an appreciation for the American democratic tradition and the democratic resources in every community, whatever their ideological orientation, to his second, Rules for Radicals, in 1972. The second book, with a cynical tone and mobilizing, good versus evil framework, became the bible for a generation of activists, with ill effects.

I appreciate the development in community organizing, after Alinsky’s death, of the idea of power as not simply getting others to do what you want but as interactive and relational, what is called “relational power.” But my own realist bent comes more from the Christian realist tradition of theologians like Reinhold Niebuhr, who also stressed nonviolence as different than pacifism.

Nonviolence is a wellspring of civic life co-created by citizens. The nonviolent philosophy, by teaching the disciplines of refraining from hating, humiliating, and defeating opponents, unleashes a different civic power.. It challenges polarization head on. As Martin Luther King wrote, “The nonviolent approach...first does something to the hearts and souls of those committed to it. It gives them new self-respect. It calls up resources of strength and courage they did not know they had.” Nonviolence as a philosophy greatly enhances an understanding of power as the capacity to act.

I am convinced that in our time of bitter polarization, we need a reawakening of nonviolence tied to repair of civic life, akin to the Second Great Awakening.

More to come.


The opinions expressed in Bridging Differences are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.