Register your Voice!

California Voter Registration

It's quick, easy, and fundamental.  Speak your piece and VOTE!

"Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has."
Margaret Mead

Are there difference conceptions of civic learning?

Civic beliefs, attitudes, dispositions, and skills do not exist in a vacuum;  they are part of a larger set of ideas about what is believed to be necessary for citizens to be properly engaged in public life.  Which civic beliefs, attitudes and dispositions, and skills are considered essential depends in part on the definition of “good citizenship.”  There are at least three broad conceptions of citizenship:

Personal Responsibility.  Develop good character.  Obey the law.  Don’t infringe others’ rights.  Know the system, follow the rules.  Vote. 

Participation.  Accept personal responsibility.  Inform yourself about the issues.  Engage in dialogue and deliberation with others, work toward a consensual judgment.  Take action—individually and collectively, within institutions and within “public spaces.”

Justice.  Participate—but question, challenge, and act in order to bring about change—in social, economic, and political systems, structures, processes, beliefs, and behavior— when they violate people’s rights, create or sustain unacceptable  inequalities, or produce unacceptable harm.  

In Civic Engagement Across the Curriculum, Rick Battistoni (Campus Compact, 2002) proposes five conceptual frameworks that relate to the participatory form of citizenship (number 2, above).  Battistoni calls these frameworks “constitutional citizenship,” “communitarianism,” “participatory democracy,” “public work,” and “social capital.”

As Battistoni notes, if we want to encourage civic learning throughout the university and across the curriculum, we need to make room for multiple perspectives as we deliberate their strengths and deficiencies. Ultimately, what’s important is that we identify and promote the complement of skills and knowledge every member of a democracy ought to possess, especially ones that might connect to disciplinary goals or general education requirements. A broad, inclusive understanding of civic learning may help faculty make the connection between civic engagement and their particular scholarly disciplines.

But the way we conceive of civic learning remains important, because different understandings of this idea carry with them different ways of defining and responding to issues of democracy that are rooted in different fundamental values, needs, priorities, perceptions, world-views, etc.  In view of the deep disagreement that at present characterizes politics in the United States, we should be clear about the assumptions embedded in different conceptions of civic learning and their political implications.

Constitutional Citizenship

The constitutional citizenship perspective begins with the individual and his or her rights and interests. The good citizen knows what rights are guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution and is committed to respecting them. He or she upholds laws made by the political and governmental institutions established in accordance with Constitutional provisions. S/he understands, moreover, that obeying the letter of the law is not enough. Citizens must develop attitudes and habits that predispose them to honor the spirit of the laws as well. In particular, citizens must exhibit a broad regard for the freedom of all persons.

The good citizen also understands that s/he has an obligation to participate in the public policy-making process to the extent necessary to help ensure that proposed laws are consistent with the Constitution; that institutions work as they are designed to, and that the interest-based preferences of citizens are expressed clearly to people’s duly-elected representatives. Political participation (in the form of voting, joining interest groups, writing public officials, campaigning for candidates, and similar activities) is not a requirement, however; like most activities in a liberal Constitutional regime, it is a matter for free individual choice. Citizens have a fundamental right to disregard politics entirely if they so choose. Participation in the political and public policy-making processes is thus not part of the identity of the citizen or of the responsibilities or expectations associated with the role.

On this view, civic engagement is thought of as either voluntary involvement in governmental or political activities or voluntary community service motivated by a desire to ensure that Constitutional rights and principles are supported by a strong civil society that provides what government cannot (or should not). For faculty, reflection on this conception of civic engagement can provide a way to introduce ideas such as rights, obligations, freedom, consent of the governed, the social contract, individual versus society, private and public, voluntary versus compulsory, community and government, and so forth.

Communitarian Citizenship

Communitarian citizenship is in large measure a response to the perception that the Constitutional conception over emphasizes the ideas of the individual and his or her rights and interests, so much so that it has dangerously weakened the social fabric needed to support a democratic political order. The balance between individual rights and interests on the one hand, and on the other hand, our shared responsibility to promote the common good, has tilted too far in the direction of the former. In consequence, the web of mutually respectful, mutually supportive relationships among citizens has deteriorated. People increasingly see their moral obligations as confined to obeying the law and refraining from infringing the rights of others. Communitarians contend that this approach to citizenship and community is unsustainable. Citizens must maintain a broad consensus on the values and principles that hold their communities and society together, preventing social relations from breaking down into an untempered, power-based competition in which those with advantages of education, income, and skill continue to gain advantages that increasingly distance them from their less-advantaged compatriots, with the eventual result that respect for people’s rights and freedom is undermined.

On the communitarian view of citizenship, civic engagement means working to mend, strengthen, and sustain social relationships based on reciprocal respect and obligation by reconnecting people with one another. In particular, encouraging relatively advantaged students to address the needs of their less-advantaged fellows helps them become aware of the consequences of allowing the social fabric to fray and impresses upon them the social necessity of promoting the well-being of all citizens, and hence the moral obligations citizens have to each other.

Participatory Democracy

Like communitarians, those who subscribe to a view of civic engagement as participation in democratic public life emphasize that rights must be balanced by responsibilities. The most fundamental, and most important, of these is participating actively in the making of decisions that affect our lives. A person who values her freedom and her individual personhood has to be concerned with the type of community and society she inhabits and with its condition. The individual can flourish only when social practices, institutions, and norms embody recognition of the importance to the individual of being able to live in a manner consistent with her values and priorities. Because practices, institutions, and norms shape the individual’s values, opportunities, and even motivation, she has a personal interest in being able and willing to act so as to shape them. Personal autonomy is thus bound up with collective political action. Because government and the law are never truly neutral, but always privilege some values over others, citizens deliberating together about what will be binding on all of them is an essential component of both democracy and a regime of individual freedom.

From the perspective of participatory democracy, civic engagement must include participation in collective decision-making and action, because it’s through such practical experience that people acquire the civic skills and attitudes they need in order to participate effectively in the public life of the community. Participation in public life doesn’t require that they get into politics, as “politics” is usually understood. But whether it’s in a classroom, or a neighborhood, or a community or campus organization, it does require that they talk, and listen, and make choices—together. In particular, we must improve the quality of our public discourse, changing the way we talk to each other and moving from recrimination to deliberation. We need to replace competitive browbeating with collaborative problem-solving.

Public Work

Public work shares with participatory democracy the critique of constitutional citizenship as overly privatized and a concern for involving all people in the decisions that affect their life in common.  A distinction is drawn, however, between public and community.  Community implies, or at least connotes, some degree of consensus and even homogeneity. But the citizenry consists of people with different experiences, perspectives, beliefs, needs, interests, and priorities. They have to come together to solve problems and meet challenges that affect them all. But they should not expect to see things eye-to-eye. They should expect to compromise and to continue to disagree.  They should expect to cooperate sufficiently to respond collectively to the problem or challenge they face, but not more than that. Public work also suggests that citizens can accomplish certain things—can only accomplish them—by working together in a practical, mutually self-interested way. Many public goods can be created only through such cooperation.

Adherents of the public work perspective are inclined to be skeptical of traditional approaches to civic engagement, such as service learning, because they believe it reinforces an undesirable distinction between the charitable giver of aid and the helpless recipient of charity. They contend that everyone has responsibilities, everyone has power (especially when acting together), and everyone has a contribution to make. The relatively disadvantaged discover and learn to use their power by engaging in public work. The implication is that students should work together with community members on the basis of their shared interests and on the basis of political equality.

Social Capital

Tocqueville argued that the propensity to form and build networks of voluntary association was a key source of the success of American democracy because it countered the isolating, privatizing effects of individualism.  In Bowling Alone, Robert Putnam presented evidence of a steady and precipitous decline in Americans’ readiness to join the types of associations of which Tocqueville spoke.  This decline correlates with a similar decline in citizens’ political activity, political knowledge, and attitudes of trust and efficacy. 

From the “social capital” perspective, participation in public life and engaging in public work are desirable, but they need to be supplemented with efforts to re-build or strengthen  networks of social connectedness so that members of communities can develop mutual trust and goodwill, a readiness to cooperate, a sense of shared responsibility, and similar positive interpersonal attitudes and dispositions (“social capital”).  The voluntary networks and associations that social capital make possible constitute the “civic infrastructure” upon which democratic decision-making and action depend.  Community service shows students why social capital and civic infrastructure are important and what it means to create and sustain connections with fellow community members. 

Return to the Frequently Asked Questions page.