Equity & Diversity Opinion

Beyond the Melting Pot—The Powers of Citizens

By Harry C. Boyte — September 13, 2016 4 min read
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Dear Deb,

I agree with you that the key focus of citizenship should be on power. But the idea of “citizens as co-creators,” the central theme in the new field of “Civic Studies,” expands the power of voting and the power of the people beyond voting.

It is a different idea of citizen than legal status and the right to vote.

One dimension of power from co-creation is the authority people gain from contributing to the “commonwealth,” as earlier generations put it. This was the premise of the Harlem Renaissance, affirming African American creativity in music, poetry, literature, art, dance, theater, and other areas by making visible what W.E.B. Du Bois called “the latent genius” of blacks. Weldon Johnson, editor of Crisis, a leading African American magazine and another key figure in Harlem, argued that the Negro of the Harlem Renaissance “is smashing immemorial stereotypes...impressing upon the national mind the conviction that he is an active and important force in American life...a creator as well as a creature...a contributor to the nation’s common cultural store.”

Another dimension of power is the sense of civic agency which people gain from shaping communities. As we’ve discussed, in Public Achievement young people gain political skills from building a shared public world -- deliberating, public speaking, learning how to work with people outside their affinity group, mapping power, and many others. As young people feel power in everyday life, formal politics takes on more significance.

I want to emphasize a third dimension of power, seen through the lens of co-creation. Co-creation challenges the individualist, hyper-competitive norms which dominate at every level of education. These atomize and isolate people. They feed the consumer culture. They define the purpose of life as making money, rather than contributing to the commonwealth.

This idea that the American dream is rootless, individual success has old roots. In Work, Culture, and Society in Industrializing America, Herbert Gutman quotes an advice manual for Jewish immigrants coming into New York in the 1890s: “Forget your past, your customs, your ideals; run, work, do, keep your own good in mind. That’s the way to get ahead in America.” My students recount stories from their own family histories, a hundred years later, which convey the same message - the way to get ahead is to “melt” into the “melting pot.”

Progressives and conservatives today both buy into the melting pot’s individualist, materialistic definition of success.

American culture holds an alternative conception of success based on cooperative contribution, not hyper-competition. It is identified with founding ideals of the Declaration of Independence and Bill of Rights such as equality and “liberty and justice for all.” This conception was associated with “cultural pluralism,” the phrase of the Horace Kallen and the philosophy of settlement house leader Jane Addams. In recent decades the late Geno Baroni was a leading cultural pluralist.

From a family of Italian immigrants in Pennsylvania, Baroni became a Catholic priest in 1956. He served in ethnic working class parishes, transferred to an inner city African American parish in Washington, and was liaison between the Catholic Church and the civil rights movement’s March on Washington.

In the late sixties Baroni argued for a new populism, different from universalist liberalism focused on redistribution and contemptuous of white ethnics, and also different from neo-conservatism, hostile to racial minorities. An architect of modern community organizing, Baroni said, “The organizer has to believe that ordinary people can build bridges across racial and ethnic lines. The organizer has to get ordinary people in touch with their roots, their heritage, their best. The organizer has to give ordinary people hope.”

We need to revive these ideals of cultural pluralism, cooperation, and commonwealth. While education based on the idea of citizens as co-creators is an important vehicle, we can’t underestimate the obstacles. In recent decades, democratic commitments have been eroded by what Lani Guinier, in her book The Tyranny of the Meritocracy, calls “the testocracy” which measures success in individualistic terms. Students from minority, immigrant, and ethnic working class backgrounds experience these norms as a message to abandon their home communities and values. As the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University found, the message increases educational disparities.

It is also a theme in student unrest. For instance, Nathan Heller’s New Yorker article, “Letter from Oberlin,” conveys students’ perception of the mismatch between Oberlin’s rhetoric about inclusion, justice, and equality and its individualist norms of achievement. Jasmine Adams, an African American activist told Heller, “As a person who plans on returning to my community, I don’t want to assimilate into middle-class values. I’m going home, back to the ‘hood of Chicago.”

How can we challenge hyper-individualist competitive norms and revitalize a cooperative, culturally pluralist, commonwealth view of success and the ends of education? How can we develop new assessment measures for cultivating such capacities? How can educators help to dismantle the melting pot myth and liberate the “latent genius” of America’s diverse cultures?

This is a great frontier of democracy.


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