Academic journal article Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning

No Values, No Democracy: The Essential Partisanship of a Civic Engagement Movement

Academic journal article Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning

No Values, No Democracy: The Essential Partisanship of a Civic Engagement Movement

Article excerpt

An audience member asked a question following a panel at the October 2012 Eastern Region Campus Compact Conference:

   We've been doing civically engaged work
   through Campus Compact and other organizations
   for twenty to thirty-some odd years. How
   come we're losing? Why is it that we're a more
   socially unjust country than we were? We have
   higher levels of inequality, there's a return of
   segregation and racism, a new attack on
   women's rights, why are we actually--seemingly--losing
   this battle?

Uncomfortable laughter throughout the room was followed by a panelist's response:

   We do have this long history of providing service,
   but I actually think there's been this disconnect
   between service and civic action ... To be
   honest it's a new area for our work with regard to
   working with faculty. We worked with faculty on
   how to get service into a syllabus; how do you
   re-orient a class that was always held in our
   classroom building to working with community
   partners? ... [When challenging, contested values
   questions arise] the majority of faculty members
   that I know, including myself, I'd much rather
   head for the door. It's scary stuff. We don't necessarily
   know how to do that. And I think when
   we start talking about the kinds of work we're
   doing in the community we get into this tricky
   thing, tricky position of saying you are part of a
   democracy here. And because of that it's not just
   about working with a community and understanding
   its issue. You also got to think about the
   policy that's behind this issue, the structures that
   are supporting homelessness, the structures that
   are supporting hunger.

This exchange implies that negative social phenomena are on the rise in America today and these phenomena are matters the civic engagement movement might address. Are national-level increases in inequity, a resurgence of racism, an increase in poverty and homelessness, and an attack on women's rights (1) causes for concern when evaluating the efficacy of the civic engagement movement? I argue that they are, and I further argue that the ability to demonstrate why these phenomena are inimical to democracy is one avenue toward seeing the difference between educating for democracy and encouraging civic engagement. The former calls the question of equal rights and treatment for all Americans, while the latter asserts the importance of civic participation without necessarily considering a national community or connection to overarching policy structures. Democracy requires a broad national community of other-affiliation, where all citizens recognize one another's inherent dignity and community membership. Recognition of that common membership and community calls for policies that ensure each citizen experiences democratic rights that, at an absolute minimum, provide equal opportunity to participate meaningfully in democratic life.

The civic engagement movement arguably has existed on the uncomfortable edge between addressing pressing community issues and maintaining a kind of political or partisan neutrality in classroom discussions. This edge is imaginary and unnecessary. Identifying and grappling with the historic and contemporary meaning of democracy will draw attention to necessary democratic values, improve the quality of classroom discourse, and increase our ability to address our most challenging social ills.

Values commitments are central to democracy. This realization will at times put democracy's supporters at odds with other contemporary political players. It follows that any university attempting to educate students to become democratic citizens--or serve as an institutional citizen itself--must wrestle with and address the implications of these values commitments in the classroom and in public life. While I will not precisely define democracy in this article, I will call attention to a few essentials of democracy (moral equality, other-affiliation), raise the question of other components of democracy (equal access to public education), and demonstrate how attentiveness to the characteristics of democracy involves values discussions and choices that must be central to any civic engagement movement that intends to support American Democracy. …

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