Academic journal article Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning

Civic Learning and Practiced Wisdom: Intergenerational Reflections on the Work of Democracy

Academic journal article Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning

Civic Learning and Practiced Wisdom: Intergenerational Reflections on the Work of Democracy

Article excerpt

Civic Work, Civic Lessons: Two Generations Reflect on Public Service

Thomas Ehrlich & Ernestine Fu

Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 2013

Global poverty. Environmental crisis. Crumbling public schools. Economic stagnation. Mass incarceration. Widening inequality.

These are just some of the deep and pervasive problems continuing to face American society in the first years of the 21st century. And quite frankly, our politicians are at a partisan stalemate and our political system just doesn't seem up to the task. We have seen increased polarization and an inability of our political class to set aside their narrow self-interests to act for a broader common good. At the same time, ordinary citizens are often relegated to the sidelines in public life, leading to what some have termed "a citizenless democracy" (National Task Force on Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement, 2012, p. 1). Thus, underlying all of these issues seems to be the larger challenge around how we make collective decisions and act together--what David Mathews (2014) has termed "problems of democracy itself" (p. xvii).

For the past few decades, an alarm has been sounded as to the crisis of democracy in American society. A series of reports and research studies (e.g., Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools, 2011; National Task Force on Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement, 2012) have indicated a dramatic decrease in civic involvement, as Americans and most especially young people--are voting less, have less civic knowledge, do not trust government or other civic institutions, and are even "bowling alone" as Robert Putman now famously noted as an indicator of the loss of social capital in communities (2000). Moreover, according to a major new study by the Pew Research Center (2014), political polarization is more deeply embedded in our lives than at any time in recent history, and those who participate most in public life are also the most ideological and polarized.

And yet, to address the adaptive challenges we face--including the renewal of democracy itself--we need diverse groups to work together for the public good while also calling upon new and creative voices to focus on sustainable solutions. That is why Thomas Ehrlich and Ernestine Fu's new book, Civic Work, Civic Lessons: Two Generations Reflect on Public Service, is so timely. Ehrlich and Fu offer personal stories and insights into how this kind of democratic renewal is not only needed, but also possible. They offer a stirring and passionate memoir about the lives of people trying to make democracy work as it should through a commitment to public service.

This commitment has for many decades been at the core of the work of Thomas Ehrlich, a luminary figure with a long career in government, nonprofits, and higher education. Inspired by President Kennedy's call for young people like him to ask "not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country" (a version of which was originally set to be the title of this book), Ehrlich dedicated his life to public service, serving in the Kennedy Administration and then subsequently in the Johnson, Ford Carter, and Clinton administrations. His notable government work included serving as the first head of the Legal Services Corporation, the director of the agency responsible for foreign-aid policy under President Carter, and on the board of the Corporation for National and Community Service. He also had a distinguished career in academia, serving as president of Indiana University, provost of the University of Pennsylvania, and dean of the Stanford Law School.

During his years in higher education, Ehrlich was a pioneer in the efforts of Campus Compact, founded in the mid-1980s to encourage college students to engage in communities, and he subsequently helped to launch the contemporary service-learning movement on college campuses as chair of the board of Campus Compact by overseeing the shift in focus from student volunteerism toward the institutionalization of civic engagement through academic service-learning. …

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