Beyond Civics and Service:
Expanding the Boundaries of Education for Democracy

By Scott London

When Alexis de Tocqueville toured the United States in the 1830s and 1840s, he marveled at Americans' propensity for civic participation. "Americans of all ages, all conditions and all dispositions constantly form associations," he famously wrote. In France, social movements were mobilized by the government, in England by the nobility, but in America, the people banded together and formed an association.

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What was distinctive about these civic organizations, Tocqueville observed, was not just how numerous and variegated they were, but how they embodied what he saw as a unique and distinctly American understanding of democracy. Associations were the means by which Americans acted together in pursuit of their common goalsand aspirations. They were carriers of what he called "habits of the heart" — the essential beliefs and practices that shape our character as democratic citizens.

For over two centuries, this idea has been deeply rooted in our national psyche. To many Americans, the word democracy still conjures up images of barn raisings and bake sales, of town meetings and gatherings on the village green. Yet studies show that the country has been moving away from this ideal in recent decades. Civic participation has dropped precipitously, membership in associations is on the wane, and our penchant for "prosecuting great undertakings in common," as Tocqueville put it, is not what it used to be.

Today, more and more of the activities once carried out by citizens have been taken over by professional nonprofits such as interest groups, watchdog organizations, and social service providers — entities that act on behalf of the public, but often without any direct public involvement. While they define what they do in terms of the needs and interests of their communities, the focus tends to be on implementing programs, delivering services and representing constituencies, not — as Tocqueville and others observed in the early days of the republic — bringing people together to discover common purpose and work toward common goals.

This shift has effectively sidelined many Americans from active participation in public life. Functions once performed by citizens have been taken over by experts who speak in their name and organizations that act in their interest. "Rarely have we felt so powerless," the National Commission on Civic Renewal summarized in a report some years ago. "In a time that cries out for civic action, we are in danger of becoming a nation of spectators."

Despite these worrisome developments, and partly in response to them, there is a growing effort across the country aimed at reversing current trends and mending the social fabric. The movement — if one can call it that — draws from a wide range of promising grassroots activities, including creative community-building practices, breakthrough academic research, boundary-spanning visioning projects, unique public-private partnerships, collective resource management systems, and innovative policymaking approaches at every level of government.

At the center of the renewal effort is a burgeoning network of organizations variously called public policy institutes or centers for civic life. While it is a highly diversified group, the organizations share a common methodology, one aimed at tackling tough public issues, revitalizing communities, and strengthening people's capacities to participate and make common cause. The centers are all founded on the notion that democracy is more than simply a system of government, it's a means by which people act together in pursuit of their common goals and aspirations. To function effectively, a democracy has to be embodied not only in public institutions but also in the everyday practices of its citizens.

Today, there are more than 50 of these centers operating in almost every state in the union, most of them affiliated with institutions of higher learning. They combine the best of what colleges and universities provide — civics courses, leadership development, service learning programs, community-based research — with the kinds of hands-on, collaborative problem-solving traditionally carried out by nongovernmental organizations.

Because most of the centers are hybrids — part academic program and part NGO — they have managed to avoid some of the trappings of traditional academic institutes, on the one hand, and conventional community organizations on the other. For example, they have largely sidestepped the problems of professionalization and accountability that have dogged many nonprofit organizations in recent years. A good number have also maintained a certain autonomy from the academic functions of their host institutions. This independence has allowed them to explore new approaches to civic education that are innovative, perhaps even groundbreaking, in American higher education.

The centers are pushing the boundaries in a number of ways: they emphasize the importance of public work and community problem-solving as the cornerstone of an education for democracy, as distinct from mere civics instruction or service learning; they are deepening and enriching scholarship by addressing its vital public dimension; they are bringing dialogue and deliberation into the classroom; and they are fostering a more democratic culture on college and university campuses.

At many institutions, the centers' activities represent a promising alternative to traditional forms of citizenship education. The work is carried out in public squares, community centers, and neighborhood associations, not behind campus walls. It also goes beyond traditional outreach and engagement efforts by emphasizing the importance of collaborative public work where academic institutions work closely with communities in ways that can benefit and strengthen both.

Rindge, New Hampshire, is a picturesque town of about 6,000 people. With its clapboard houses, white-steepled colonial churches and expansive town greens, it's a prototypical New England community. But for all its history and small-town charm, Rindge faces an uncertain future. A swelling population that has increased sevenfold over the last two generations coupled with deepening divisions about whether to protect the town's historic heritage or promote commercial expansion have stirred up a heated debate about how to go forward.

A few years ago, Douglas Challenger and Joni Doherty at the university's New England Center for Civic Life brought together community leaders to tackle the issue head-on. What Rindge needed, they believed, was a way for people to come together, explore the perils and possibilities ahead, and work toward some common goals. But it would take more than an old-fashioned town meeting and more than just another community plan.

As a first step, they assembled a 20-member steering committee jointly led by local residents, town officials, and fellow faculty members. Then they carried out an extensive survey to assess where the community stood on a range of priorities for the future. But unlike so many community visioning projects, the process didn't end there. The survey was a crucial component, but it could only take the project so far. It could map people's individual preferences, but it couldn't help them arrive at a common understanding of the values and aspirations of the town as a whole.

To discover that, they would need to come together to deliberate about the pros and cons of various scenarios for Rindge's future. The deliberative forums were time-consuming but also deeply rewarding for many in the community. The conversations brought people together, strengthened ties between local organizations, and forged some new programs and initiatives. It also led to some key decisions, including the hiring of a new town planner, the launching of a local periodical, and the purchase of an aquifer for the benefit of the community.

The project was groundbreaking. It was the first time the community had come together to not only voice opinions but actually hammer out a set of concrete plans for the town's future. For Challenger and Doherty, the process was also rewarding from an academic standpoint. It involved their students in what they describe as "problem-based service learning." It illuminated what scientifically generated facts and expertise can and can't do in the realm of public decision-making. And it allowed the college to extend its reach into the community to contribute resources and expertise in a uniquely collaborative and participatory way.

The Franklin Pierce center is one of a growing number of organizations across the country carrying out these kinds of civic renewal efforts. At the University of Michigan, for example, the National Forum on Higher Education for the Public Good uses deliberative dialogue to strengthen the link between citizens at the community level and regional and state policymakers. The Center for Civic Participation at Maricopa Community Colleges works with leaders from Hispanic, black, Native American, and other traditionally underserved communities to ensure they have a greater voice in regional and state policy discussions. The Institute for Civic Discourse and Democracy at Kansas State University partners with other organizations across the state to make sure policy discussions on issues like immigration, land-use reform, health care, and energy policy reflect the public voice.

Ultimately the goal of all the centers is to build and strengthen communities from the ground up. But they go about that mission in different ways. Some strive to empower individuals by giving them the tools and frameworks to engage and make a difference, some seek to shape public policy, some work to build trust and reinforce social bonds, and some help communities take matters into their own hands and engage in real-world problem solving. 

Some years ago, a center based at Virginia Tech began working with the small town of Wytheville, Virginia, on a project that illustrates the community development approach. Sometimes referred to as the "Crossroads of the Blue Ridge," Wytheville was debating whether to divide and relocate two major highways. Over the course of three years, the center helped the community not only to resolve the highway dispute but to develop an overarching vision for the town's future. With the help of graduate students, the center first conducted interviews and research in Wytheville. It then spent six weeks working with local leaders to create a framework for communitywide deliberation. This was followed by a year-long series of public dialogues where the people of Wytheville systematically examined several potential scenarios for the town's future. On the basis of these deliberations, the center then helped the community develop a long-term vision statement and move toward concerted action.

According to institute director Larkin Dudley, it was "incredible to see the evolution and broadening of the community's focus from a narrow immediate question of road relocation to a larger question of the future of the community." It was also a powerful example of what happens when people in a community change from asking what their leaders can do for them to asking what they can do for themselves, Dudley says. The shift in the discussion allowed the group to develop new lines of thinking and to imagine a new set of possibilities.

In communities across the country, centers are bringing people and organizations together in this way to collectively define the issues, search for workable solutions, and then put them into play. This approach distinguishes their work from conventional "engagement initiatives" and "community partnerships" where the different parties come to the work with their own preestablished goals or agendas. The centers work with communities to discover group purpose, not aggregate the interests of everyone involved. The work grows out of a systemic approach to community-building, one that recognizes that you can't deal with specific problems without also dealing with the connections among and between them.

"Civic engagement" has become a catchphrase on college and university campuses across the country over the last decade. Much is made of "preparing students for responsible citizenship," "developing future leaders," and "inculcating civic values." But for all the talk about higher education as a public good, the academy's commitment has been mostly limited to civics instruction and service learning. It's not that students don't benefit from learning about government or from serving others, rather that these pedagogies too often take the place of hands-on experience tackling issues and solving problems in the community.

The work of the centers differs from conventional civics curricula or service learning programs, which are oriented primarily at undergraduates. It also differs from traditional campus-community partnerships and collaboratives, in which institutions confer knowledge and resources on behalf of others. The centers' activities are aimed at fostering essential democratic practices and grounding them in public work carried out with and as part of the community. They bring people together, identify issues, convene deliberative conversations, and promote collective action to bring about real social change. This is a model of citizenship education that revolves around democratic problem-solving, not simply inculcating civic values or "doing good" in the community.

The centers are also reshaping citizenship education by pushing the boundaries of scholarship. Traditional academic research presents a difficult challenge for those working to build communities and strengthen democratic practices. What works in higher education does not necessarily work in public life. In the academy, knowledge is valued to the extent that it makes an original contribution to its given field or discipline. In the public sphere, by contrast, knowledge is valued to the extent that it advances specific public ends. The two forms of knowledge are not mutually exclusive, but many of the problems of public life are not technical in nature and therefore can't be solved by expert knowledge. They are not based on conflicting information so much as conflicting values and convictions.

Through the work of the centers, scholars at a growing number of institutions are exploring new ways to deepen and enrich their disciplines by drawing on public knowledge — knowledge based on group inquiry and public deliberation. When done well, they say, it not only advances their scholarship but also serves the broader needs of the community. The centers offer an ideal laboratory for public scholarship of this sort by allowing faculty to explore the broader civic dimensions of their research.

A further way the centers are reinventing civic education is by bringing deliberative dialogue into the classroom. "If you look at a lot of classroom activities," says Richard Dubanoski, dean of the College of Social Sciences at the University of Hawaii, "we have an expert lecturing the students. We don't engage them in the conversation, in active learning, or in any kind of critical thinking." Participating in one-time deliberative discussions on specific issues may not transform a student's learning experience, he says, but the practice of deliberation is very powerful when it becomes part of an ongoing process of inquiry. "If students are having continual experiences from the time they come to the university until the time they leave, there is a chance they will take on the habit of deliberating."

Some centers have also partnered with academic departments to create "schools for democracy" — opportunities for students to live and work together as citizens. Larkin Dudley at Virginia Tech sees this as part of a growing movement, particularly at large research universities, aimed at developing "learning communities" where students can share ideas and work together to achieve common learning objectives. "It's an attempt to find alternative ways of creating community," she says.

There is no easy way to measure the outcomes of the centers' work over the past two decades. Even if it were possible to sum up the quantitative data — the growing ranks of institute alumni, for example, or the rate of growth of the network as a whole — the real value of the work would not be reflected in the numbers.

Institute leaders routinely caution against searching for hard evidence of impact. The most powerful outcomes are the most difficult to quantify because they involve democratic norms and capacities that are intangible, says Charles Lacy, retired director of a center at University of California Davis. "If you can tell strong stories," he adds, "that is probably the closest you can come."

Even so, the evidence — especially when examined as a whole — constitutes more than just good stories. It suggests that the centers' efforts have contributed to a range of public goods. Thanks to careful documentation and, in a few cases, independent evaluations, the centers can be shown to have directly or indirectly increased voter turnout, heightened civic participation, strengthened civic capacity, deepened trust and mutual understanding, spanned social, political and economic boundaries, reached out to traditionally underrepresented populations, brought an end to stalemates on intractable issues, influenced public attitudes, and shaped public policy.

There is also some evidence — less convincingly documented but supported by interviews and second-hand reports — suggesting that some centers' programs have improved relationships between citizens and officials, enhanced decision-making, expanded the responsiveness of local institutions such as government, business, and the media, and even created new institutional arrangements.

The big question facing the centers is whether the value of their work is adequately recognized and whether they will continue to get the support they need in coming years. Many of them are tied to colleges and universities that are cutting back and shifting their priorities to other pressing demands, such as expanding enrollment, accommodating diversity, or simply making financial ends meet. But if the centers can continue to document their successes and make a compelling case for their work, both individually and as a network, they are likely to have a significant and deepening influence in the years ahead — one that can enrich our public discourse, strengthen our social fabric, and shore up our capacity to govern ourselves as democratic citizens.

This essay was adapted from Doing Democracy: How a Network of Grassroots Organizations Is Strengthening Community, Building Capacity, and Shaping a New Kind of Civic Education, an occasional paper by Scott London (Kettering Foundation Press, 2010).