Pay attention to matters of importance.
—Diogenes Laertius, The Life of Solon
Habitual inattention must be reckoned the great vice of
the democratic spirit.
—Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America
THIS BOOK ABOUT what Americans do and think begins by analyzing how we talk and write. The premise is that language matters; our choice of words may reflect or even affect our frames of mind. To borrow from Max Weber, humans are “suspended in webs of significance that [we ourselves have] spun,” ensnared in the logic that our choice of words dictates.1 Such is the case with civic engagement. Born of a movement to analyze, promote, and possibly save democracy, nurtured with the best of intentions, the term civic engagement has grown out of control and has outlived its purpose, sowing more confusion than clarity. However, this book not only exposes the confusion but also turns it to our advantage. Acknowledging the problems with civic engagement terminology prompts us to examine it more closely, and a closer look can yield fresh insight into the unarticulated values and anxieties that have contributed to the term’s popularity. Through that exercise we can recognize more clearly the resources—especially attention and energy—that frequently flee from the public sphere and civil society but that must be protected and promoted for democracy’s sake. Thus we can learn from civic engagement even as we bid it goodbye.
Indeed, civic engagement as we know it is ready for retirement. That judgment might surprise the scholars, journalists, educators, and community leaders for whom civic engagement has become a household word. Since Robert Putnam first popularized the term in his 1993 political science classic, Making Democracy Work, it has spread through the pages of newspapers, Internet sites, academic books and journals, and mainstream
1 Clifford Geertz attributed this widely cited line of thinking to Weber. Geertz interprets the self-spun web to denote culture, but language and rhetoric fit the metaphor just as aptly. Geertz (1973: 5).