Social Studies Opinion

An Epistemology of Agency

By Harry C. Boyte — September 20, 2016 4 min read
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Harry Boyte continues his conversation with Deborah Meier. To read their full exchange, please visit here.

Dear Deb and colleagues,

In your last reflection, you point out that progressives and conservatives, both discontented about schools, have had different “enemies” (here, you remind me of the community organizer Ernesto Cortes, who argues that the key to change is figuring out who to be mad at and how to discipline that anger).

You also ask, how do we shift the focus from how schools can help individuals grab scarce opportunities, to building communities around schools, across differences, that can rebuild democracy schools for all children? And also, what language can help us?

I believe we need an “epistemology of agency,” an understanding of “truth” to counter the “post-truth politics” which Donald Trump embodies. In post-truth politics, feelings substitute for evidence and a Manichean mindset is widespread. An epistemology of agency is a lived theory of knowledge, a praxis, in which we learn to experience, see, and foster civic agency. This is theory that doesn’t simply analyze from outside the world, but helps us to act in the world.

An epistemology of agency integrates evidence, values, and skills of action to build collective power, our capacity to act to shape the world around us and to meet its challenges. Developing this living theory of knowledge is a vital potential of the emerging transdisciplinary field of Civic Studies, which we’ve discussed. It brings together empirical disciplines (the sciences), normative disciplines (the humanities), and action disciplines (professions) through the framework that all of us are citizens, co-creators, connected by the question, “What should we as citizens do to address our challenges?”

Students have passion to be part of this, to make change, fed both by their moral sense of injustices and by their self-interests. They feel, correctly, that the direction we’re going and the institutions in which we live and work have to change if we’re going to address multiplying problems, from climate change to racial injustice, from dysfunctional schools to growing inequality. Our institutions are like arms and legs - instruments through which we act. And education is crucial because it equips us for life. It builds our “civic muscle,” our capacity to act - or it fails to do so. Today it is largely failing to do so.

Here, I agree with Adam Weinberg, a long-time colleague who is now president of Denison University. Before he came to Denison, Adam directed World Learning, an organization that runs education and cross-cultural programs for about 10,000 young people from 140 countries. They educate students by tying learning to real world action that addresses public problems. He came to believe that “we have what we need to address significant global challenges....the technology (e.g., knowledge, methods, processes, and physical tools) and the locally rooted assets to focus on climate change, human rights abuses, water shortages, joblessness, ethnic conflict, and other critical global issues.”

Adam became convinced that “What we lack is the capacity to organize ourselves to use our technology and assets to address these problems.” At World Learning they stress public work, sustained effort that develops the capacity, the civic agency, of people from different backgrounds to work together on common challenges. He went to Denison convinced that educational institutions like colleges and schools have undeveloped but immense potential to develop civic agency.

In July, Paul Pribbenow, president of Augsburg College, and I visited Denison to meet with a group of faculty and staff and last week Augsburg hosted a visit from two of them, Fareeda Griffith and Karen Powell Sears. Fareeda and Karen, both African American sociologists, direct a mentoring program with women of color in a group called “Sisters in Dialogue.” They have deep insights into the lives, hopes, and frustrations of these students.

In their descriptions I was also struck by parallels with students at Oberlin, described by Nathan Heller in the New Yorker article last spring, “The Big Unease.” In both places (and many others) students are frustrated about issues like racism and inequality. More subtly, they are frustrated about the way colleges have developed a hypercompetitive, highly individualistic achievement ethic. Oberlin is doing little to equip students with the capacities for making change

Jasmine Adams, a student activist, said, “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.” She also described her feelings of powerlessness, “Whatever you do at Oberlin as a person of color or a low-income person, it just doesn’t work!”

Students across the country feel similar frustrations and powerlessness. The question is how they can learn to channel anger into agency-building action. That’s Fareeda and Karen’s mission. They want to help their students not simply to cope but to become leaders and cultivate their own efficacy and agency in changing education and the larger world for the better. That’s an epistemology of agency, a lived philosophy of power-building.

How can we ignite a fire across education to rise to this challenge?


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