Teaching Opinion

Democratic Decisions and Civic Agency

By Harry C. Boyte — April 26, 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,

We were both at the John Dewey Society conference in Washington earlier in April. Leonard Waks, the JDS president who presided over the 100th anniversary of Dewey’s classic Democracy and Education and edited the special double issue of Educational Theory exploring its impacts and continuing relevance, wrote to me that he sees our conversations as on the “cutting edge” of issues about democracy and education.

“Dewey says that the most important element of elections is that they encourage a richer communicative exchange among diverse groups,” Len said, identifying you with the Dewey community. Len adds, “But Dewey does not have much to say about how that broadening and deepening of community is to be directly channeled into collective action...so the civic studies folk have much to contribute.”

Len Waks wants to have “deep exploration of the issues” between Civic Studies and the Dewey community. I agree that this could be highly generative.

So here let me further develop the “Civic Studies” side (or at least the public work strand - Civic Studies may be more diverse than Dewey community). I call this strand the politics of co-creative agency.

Power, in its root meaning, does not mean “who decides what.” The Spanish form, poder, gives a more accurate rendering. It means to be able, or can. Put differently, power is the capacity to act. So while I agree that formal decision making structures are part of the picture, the skills, capacities, and ways of thinking - including what you call “trust in one’s own judgement in the face of authority” -- that generate such capacity are not “indirect” power. That’s like calling flesh and blood secondary in the body, while the skeleton is the “real thing.”

As I’ve mentioned before, I live part of the year in South Africa. My wife, Marie-Louise Ström, was a democracy educator across Africa for two decades. We often worked together in South Africa. South Africa is usually described as having “achieved democracy” in 1994 with the famous election that ended apartheid and elected Nelson Mandela.

The new government put in place all sorts of new participatory decision making structures, in local government, schools and the police. These have turned out to be hollow without independent centers of citizen power, people’s power, where people develop skills, habits, confidence, and concepts of civic agency. I’ve seen again and again how energized and hopeful people become when they come to see that they can actually make change and that democracy is an empowering way of life, not simply elections. They realize they don’t have to wait for elected officials, or participate in formal structures to make change.

A civic agency/public work approach reframes the 1994 election as a milestone but not achievement of “democracy.” I’ve also seen how much the African National Congress claims to represent “democracy” because they have been elected.

In fact, Africa has rich, ancient traditions of what we call public work - self-organized communal labors. These are crucial foundations for a democratic way of life that existed long before Europeans brought the term to the continent. But language makes a difference. Some post-colonial governments have taken them over - arguing that formal elections are the substance of democracy.

Elites mobilize people on collective labor days, drawing on the language of tradition (as you point out, authoritarian regimes have their own version of collective labors), but changing the meaning. They displace agency into “elections.”

For instance, one of Marie’s long time colleagues in the Institute for Democracy in South Africa, Jacqueline Nzisabira, describes how, in her native Burundi, communal labors, known as ibikorwa rusangi, underwent radical change after independence. “When I was growing up collective work was used to cultivate land in Burundi,” Nzisabira describes. “Such labors empowered people and created a stronger sense of community.” In recent years, she observes, “There has been a tendency for the government to control the process. The work shifts meaning when it is state-directed, rather than coming from the community.”

In “Constructive Politics as Public Work” (Political Theory 2011), I contrast many such examples of self-organizing collective labors which cultivate civic agency, with collective labors controlled by outside elites.

So, again, I agree that decision making is an element of democracy, but the way decisions are made is only one piece. It can’t be called “real” democracy. We need to emphasize people power, capacities for collective action.

There are many strategic implications for your schools and all schools, and I look forward to discussing these questions.

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.