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Home arrow Education arrow American public education and the responsibility of its citizens : supporting democracy in the age of accountability


The Role of Civil Society

Much of this book has been focused on the responsibilities of citizens to support public schools. Underlying this call is not only an understanding of citizenship, but also a notion of civil society as the key location for citizenship development and revitalization. Scholars of Civic Studies and some citizen leaders have called for a revitalization of civil society, especially on the heels of studies and books that have documented its decline in recent decades.31 Not only have rates of civil participation declined, but the composition of those groups has also changed. Leading sociologist of democracy Theda Skocpol claims that while “for decade after decade in U.S. civil life until recently, major voluntary associations involved considerable popular participation and mobilized people of different occupational and class backgrounds into the same or parallel groups" civil organizations are now more segregated by social class and lack a shared identity that historically united them across differences.32 More recently, the most wealthy Americans organize use their clout and political ties, largely in terms of business and individual interests, almost entirely only with each other. Upper-middle-class professionals tend to work only with their similarly highly educated peers on social problems. And working-class people, historically involved in union work, have increasingly dropped out of civil society.33

These changes have been exacerbated by population shifts, including decreased male enrollment in military service, which tended to lead to participation in veterans’ groups, and an influx of educated housewives into the workforce, a population that previously organized and widely recruited for many civil organizations. The groups that remain are now less likely to recruit across classes and backgrounds, leading some of them to be perceived as exclusionary and less welcoming.34 And rather than widely recruiting citizens across backgrounds to meet face-to-face and work together en masse, much of civil work now boils down to financial contributions fun- neled toward advocacy organizations, think tanks, and other outlets thought to influence public policy, centralized in the geographical regions of state and national capitols.35

From the sociological studies of Skocpol, we know that in our efforts to rethink and improve civil society, “most people need to be directly invited into public engagements, contacted personally by leaders and folks they know. People must also ‘see themselves’ in the shared undertaking. And they must believe an undertaking will really matter—or else they won’t bother. All of these considerations direct our attention to the changing roles of leaders, to shifting social identities and modes of organization, and to considerations of power, resources, and institutional leverage"36 I contend that our public schools, which educate children from all classes and backgrounds and are ultimately in the hands of citizens, and which are facing serious problems that can be assuaged through significant local action, may be the source and location of important new civil associations. They may be capable of bringing people together in meaningful collective deliberation and action. We need to showcase how this would work in order to avoid seeing schools only in terms of personal interest or as spaces that we do not own.

Any effort to strengthen democracy via civil society must first explain what civil society is and how it contributes to good democratic living. Without an understanding of seemingly abstract terms like civil society, citizenship, or publics, citizens lack a language to deliberate about and work toward their fulfillment. Instead, citizens may be more comfortable discussing things like property and rights, since they can see and understand how these matter in their lives more directly.

As I explain in this section, I contend that civil society is the primary space where publics form and act, and civil society is the space where we assess and determine the legitimacy of our institutions (including schools) and uphold them as instrumental to democracy. In the case I make here, I aim to clarify civil society, in part, so I can better articulate where and how public actions on behalf of schools should be initiated and, in many cases, play out. I also want to highlight civil society as the primary space where students learn how to be good citizens and to appreciate institutions and associations that preserve democracy. Unlike some civil society revivalists before me, however, I do not seek to supplant the state or government with an expanded civil society.37 And, unlike some neoliberals and neoclassical economists, I do not believe that civil society will thrive if government simply ceased to exist. I still see a need for the state and government to ensure that democracy flourishes by providing some public goods like security, facilitating an open public sphere, and regulating markets to keep them aligned with public interests,38 yet I emphasize the role of civil society in supporting and supplementing them.39

Often, the term “public” is associated with or even seen as synonymous with the government or state. But publics as I have defined and used them throughout this book are only at times and in small ways immediate elements of the government or state. Instead, publics are primarily located in civil society, a “sphere of social interaction” between large government life, private markets, and local family life.40 Civil society bridges these elements, connecting them and weaving together the individual with the community, freedoms, and regulations. Sometimes this involves compromise or mediating conflicts between the practices and ideologies of the home, the economy, and the state through open communication among individuals who come together in voluntary associations. They work together to expose tensions, then seek to alleviate those tensions, or at least determine how to live harmoniously in the midst of them. As groups in civil society navigate the continuum from private to public, they encounter shifts in trust and power. They must transition from interacting with those with whom they share close bonds or common interests, to interacting with unfamiliar people and impersonalized arms of the government that wield significant power.41

While civil society connects and mediates the state and economy, it is still distinct from them in important ways. Namely, as explained by Jean Cohen and Andrew Arato,

the actors of political and economic society are directly involved with state power and economic production, which they seek to control and manage. They cannot afford to subordinate strategic and instrumental criteria to the patterns of normative integration and open-ended communication characteristic of civil society ... The political role of civil society in turn is not directly related to the control or conquest of power, but to the generation of influence through the life of democratic associations and unconstrained discussion in the cultural public sphere.42

In this way, civil society is capable of influencing the state and economy by forming open associations and coalitions that engage together in communication, social movements, and other avenues to shape their surroundings. Barber further clarifies that

the dominant character of the civil domain is given by its nature as a public and open realm (like the state sector) which, however, is voluntary and noncoercive (like the private sector), and its constituent member communities must have some aspect of openness and inclusion. For although it is “private,” it partakes of the egalitarianism and nonexclusivity of the democratic public sector; and although it is public, it is neither sovereign nor coercive, sharing certain virtues of both the public and private realms, it constitutes a third and independent sector.43

Within such a space, citizens can self-mobilize to form relationships, communities, and publics that are not as restrictive and demanding as the family sphere (where blood ties often force action or interaction) because they are open and genuine. Civil society “is participatory and communal (like the public sector) yet voluntary and uncoercive (like the private sector).”44 It is a space that facilitates people coming together around shared concerns or experiences to form publics. Being voluntary, civil society offers an important space without undue state coercion for citizens to deliberate about laws, institutions, and practices of democracy to determine whether they are just or legitimate. It provides citizens a space to share and compare their assessments, as well as to openly proclaim their consent in public ways, thereby strengthening democracy and affirming its alignment with citizens’ beliefs, needs, and desires.

Publics, as voluntary groups, may play out as social movements and associations, or take shape within institutions like schools and churches. These groups can work together to share their mutual concerns, articulate their goals, craft resolutions, stage political protests, or facilitate legislation that can reshape government and its laws or can influence the private practices of the home. For example, The Arc grew out of a small collection of parents who were concerned about the treatment of their children with intellectual and developmental disabilities, especially in schools.45 Like the process of public formation outlined earlier in this book, they formed an association that worked together to understand the problem and craft solutions. Eventually, building coalitions with other groups, they significantly shaped the national Individuals with Disabilities Act of 1990. They continue to impact schools today by sharing ways to better integrate children with disabilities into traditional classrooms and influencing parents’ views of and practices with their children who have disabilities. They are located in the civil realm, which facilitates their growth as a public, but their effect has reached from federal law to institutional school practices to parents’ private expectations for their children’s education.

Civil society is also an important space for cultivating democracy. Legal scholars James Fleming and Linda McClain are correct in their assertion that “associations of civil society play the critical roles of underwriting a stable constitutional democracy and fostering persons’ capacities for democratic self-government"46 Civil society provides outlets for assessing legitimacy, dissenting against unjust laws or practices of the state, and exercising democratic practices, thereby keeping democracy in check and vibrant. But it also affects the individuals who comprise democracies. As a location where public formation and democratic activity are conducted, witnessed, and experienced, civil society can shape our democratic allegiances, attitudes, and beliefs. Within civil society, we see what works well as people interact together around shared problems or interests, providing us direction for future endeavors. And we witness successes that confirm for us that associated living is best done in just ways, guided by the principles of democracy, such as the goal of equal opportunity that drove The Arc. Importantly, by working with associations who fulfill civic responsibilities and engage publicness, we learn about and embody the types of responsibility and public living that I have championed throughout this book. In this way, through civil society we can develop citizens who recognize the value of democracy and are willing to work to preserve it and strengthen it.

Civil society, as I describe it here, might better be captured by the term “civil sphere" which includes “values and institutions that generate the capacity for social criticism and democratic integration at the same time"47 The civil sphere brings together our rights as individuals with our shared obligations as citizens, offering us not only a description of our associated living, but also normative guidance on living together well.48

However, there is no reason to assume that the associations of civil society will necessarily nurture good citizenship, even if they are normatively guided by a civil sphere. Some associations may uphold ideologies that are not aligned with liberal values like tolerance, or they may engage in unjust practices, such as some fundamentalist churches or the schools they run that profess sexist views. In some cases, even those civil associations can inadvertently still impart some fruitful elements of democratic living as by-products of their practices, even if their beliefs conflict with democratic principles. In other words, by working together in the association, individuals may still develop skills of publicness, communication, and cooperation that are worthwhile. Within this example, women of the church, while they may be relegated to domestic activities like cooking on account of the church’s sexist views, may work together to address local problems of hunger by forming a food bank or they may guide a group of students in cooking meals for the poor. In other cases, associations may fall considerably short of even this, because their practices are antidemocratic. For example, the church may fail to promote key elements of democracy, such as equal opportunity and fair leadership, by denying women the opportunity to wield power within the church hierarchy or denying girls access to the sports opportunities provided to boys in their schools.

Fleming and McClain explain that often, though, “there is a liberal expectancy of congruence between civil society and democracy—that the values cultivated in civil society will be liberal democratic values and thus will undergird liberal democracy"49 While we can hope for this and encourage it, especially if civil society were to be expanded and strengthened in today’s world, we cannot count on it. Notably, the Founders did make such an assumption; they believed that civil society would establish and affirm good citizenship without the need for a national governmental project to do so.50 In today’s society, with its weakened civil component, projects overtly focused on developing citizenship may be more warranted, and schools are certainly the most obvious location for such work.

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