Teaching Opinion

Democracy and Civic Studies

By Harry C. Boyte — March 22, 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,

I agree that exploring what democracy means is interesting. It’s also very important at this point in time when democracy’s meaning has been dramatically reduced. We can probably both agree, democracy is vastly more than elections or majority rule!

We also have agreement on tradeoffs and compromises and on principles such as rough equality in power and knowledge (leisure, I’m not sure - see below). I like the comment of William Hastie, the first black federal judge, that democracy is a journey, not a destination.

But we also have some differences worth exploring. For one thing, I find compelling the argument of Victor Hanson in The Other Greeks. Hanson argues against scholars who assume that Athenian public life represented the democratization of aristocratic leisure, and the ideal of “civic virtue” which holds that citizens should put aside their interests to pursue a common good. Hanson marshals a good deal of evidence to suggest that in fact Athenian democracy grew out of the breakup of the large landed estates and the rise of small farms. The gritty, everyday challenges and disciplines of such farming necessitated cooperative labors on common projects. It wasn’t a matter of putting aside interests, but finding that interests sometimes needed to be pooled through cooperation. It was a political process, in the sense of politics we’ve been discussing. The discipline of learning to tie one’s interests, especially in work, to the long range health of the city was a key democratic habit.

Democracy in Athens embodied public, cooperative effort, in Hanson’s account. By the way, although only men and citizens (not women, slaves or foreigners) could participate, there was no class distinction - the very poorest were included.

This fits research I have done on the roots of democracy across the world in communal labors, which suggests that democracy is not best described as simply “self-government.” Put differently, democracy doesn’t only mean participating in decision making. It means also creating communities. The concept of citizen as co-creator is revolutionary, a challenge to the whole sweep of contemporary societies.

Democratic practices of communal labor, what we call public work, can be found in every culture long before the term democracy came into existence. Cooperative public work across differences of economic rank and status, sometimes others like ethnicity, has an element of democratic decision making that distinguishes it from conscripted labors organized and controlled by outside powers, whether emperors or nobles or kings. Public work is self-organized cooperative effort by a mix of people which produces something of lasting common benefit (cultural as well as material). It generates the sense that democracy is something people make, not simply participate in. Wells, common buildings, shared clearing of fields, and also cultural , products like song and dance and schools, are all examples. Public work existed in settings (like medieval Europe) where formally people were ruled by kings and immigrants brought these traditions to America - a wellspring of our democratic culture. I describe the ways in which public work generates civic agency, collective power, in an essay in Political Theory, “Constructive Politics as Public Work.”

Another ancient democratic practice is deliberation. Nelson Mandela in his autobiography Long Walk to Freedom argues that deliberation of (male) villagers of all backgrounds and ranks is the heart of democracy - even though the chief made the final decision. These practices of deliberation, often around a great tree in the middle of villages, are an ancient feature of African civic life.

Deliberation and public work feed into the transdisciplinary field, with a website at Tufts University, called Civic Studies, based on concepts of agency and citizens as co-creators of communities at different scales. Civic Studies provides important resources for democracy in a time of trial.

Another concept in Civic Studies is self-governance of common resources like forests, irrigation systems, fisheries and others, which turns out to be essential to their survival, according to the research of Elinor Ostrom, one of our co-founders, her husband Vincent, and an international network of collaborative researchers. Olstrom won the Nobel Prize in Economics for this research in 2009. She contrasted citizen governance of common resources, where local communities set rules and sanctions and apply them, with control by outside forces. The formal governance structures can be complex, what Ostrom calls “polymorphic,” with many levels.

Civic Studies also includes traditions of grounded theory such as critical theory, community organizing and popular education, and recognition of the importance of different kinds of knowledge and different ways of knowing, not simply scientific or academic knowledge, called interpretative social science.

Civic Studies, I believe, has many implications for democracy schools, both preK-12 and higher education.

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.