Magazine article Academe

The Struggle against Positivism

Magazine article Academe

The Struggle against Positivism

Article excerpt

Academics can be public intellectuals, but they can't pose as "experts."

IN RECENT YEARS, THE WORLD OF ACADEMIA HAS REdiscovered civic education, a once-vital tradition in American higher education, especially at public and land-grant universities. At the Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs, where I am a senior fellow, civic education has been at the center of our work since 1987, when the institute asked me to establish a project on "the problems in democracy." We have generated what we call a "public work" philosophy of civic education, which stresses the civic skills and sense of civic selfhood that can develop in sustained efforts by a mix of people who make a lasting contribution on questions that concern them.

In our youth effort, Public Achievement, for example, more than ten thousand young people from the ages of eight to eighteen have created public projects on issues they care about (the issues have to be legal and nonviolent, and they have to "make a public contribution"). In teams coached by adults and based in schools and community centers in four states and Northern Ireland, the young people address problems such as gun violence, racial conflict, school change, teen pregnancy, and "saving the rain forest." They often choose issues that affect the overall climate of their schools or communities, and they learn skills such as negotiation, public speaking, letter writing, interviewing, and dealing with those in authority.

Public Achievement has made clear the immense untapped public talents and hidden passions of young people. It has also helped generate a concept of the citizen not simply as a voter or a volunteer but as a "co-creator" of the common world and democracy itself. Young people are seen as "citizens today," not just as "citizens in preparation."

Our efforts at the Humphrey Institute are not unique. Campuses and communities across the country have formed partnerships to promote conununity service, citizenship, and democratic renewal. An important partnership has developed between Trinity College and the city of Hartford, Connecticut; a university-wide citizenship curriculum is in place at Tufts University; and there is new attention to public scholarship at Oregon State University and at the American Association for Higher Education. Since the early 1990s, Campus Compact, an organization of college and university presidents founded to promote community service, has shifted its focus to fostering citizenship and democratic renewal.

These changes are welcome in a time of falling voting levels and wide feelings of civic powerlessness. But they are still just beginnings. If they are to amount to much, faculty members need to take sustained leadership roles. We must do so partly for reasons of self-interest: only through a recovery of our public purposes can we resist the forces pushing us toward reorganization according to the dictates of the market and toward distance education as the basic paradigm on the premise that teaching is, at bottom, simply "instruction."

Yet we face a great obstacle. The stance of the "outside expert," woven into the fabric of our work and sustained by a discredited theory, positivism, weakens us tremendously in political terms. As intellectuals in the Eastern bloc had sounded the death knell of communism by 1989, we need to put an end to an outdated philosophy in which few believe any more, but which holds us all in thrall.


Our work at the Humphrey Institute, based at the University of Minnesota's Center for Democracy and Citizenship, builds on the tradition of citizenship education of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), for which I worked as a field secretary in 1964 and 1965. The SCLC sponsored hundreds of "citizenship schools" across the South in church basements, beauty parlors, and community centers. Southern blacks, struggling against the brutal weight of segregation, developed a transformed sense of "somebody-ness" as they explored the question, what is a citizen? …

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