What is Civic Studies?

Yesterday, I wrote all about my adventures in New Orleans, but, perhaps more importantly, the reason I was there was for the 85th Annual Meeting of the Southern Political Science Association.

The meeting featured a one day “conference within a conference” devoted to the discussion of civic studies. As you may recall, I participated in the Summer Institute of Civic Studies this past summer, and, along with my colleague Peter Levine, I’ll be co-teaching an undergraduate course on civic studies starting this Thursday.

So, I suppose, all this begs the question, what is civic studies?

Well, it’s an emerging, interdisciplinary field. The “the intellectual component of civic renewal, the movement to improve societies by engaging their citizens.”

That’s the canonical definition, but I’m not sure how satisfying you find it. Like that time I looked up “smelting” and the dictionary defined it as “to smelt.” Great, thanks.

But defining things is complicated.

Once in college, someone asked me who I was and I stared at him for what felt like ten minutes before I finally figured out he was just asking for my name. And here I was having this existential moment thinking, but who am I?

As a general rule, I don’t use the phrase “words cannot express” because words can never really express something. My job, and indeed my passion, is finding those words which best express an idea, concept or feeling. But ultimately, words are always imperfect – they have a thousand different meanings to a thousand different people. And it’s not just the meaning of a word that matters, but its spirit, energy, and texture. Sharp words strike tough, while soft words whisper sweetly.

Ideas get pounded into words, and over time, those words become common enough that my deeply personal understanding is more or less the same as your deeply personal understanding. Then we can communicate. Or maybe our understandings are just a little bit different, and then we fight without hardly knowing why.

So given these complications, how can one hope to define a new field without lengthy lists and explanations? Carefully chronicling what it is and, perhaps, what it is not? I could share the syllabus of Summer Institute, and if you’re familiar with those authors or their works, that might help.But otherwise, it’s just a list of words with little meaning behind them.

So, really though, what is civic studies? I’ll share more of a “dictionary definition” below, but here is my personal, rough, unfiltered, gut definition. Here is what civic studies evokes for me:

Civic studies is the exploration of how to improve a complex world. Every person should have a voice in shaping the world around them and, indeed, societies are better when they’re shaped by the people within them.

Civic studies envisions societies where all perspective are valued. Where everyone learns from each other and the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Societies where institutions encourage and sustain active participation and where education prepares individuals for that active participation.

Knowing that utopia is a long way off (and, perhaps, unobtainable) civic studies asks, what can we do to move towards it? Literally you and I. Not us, not them. You and I.

And the great thing about civic studies is that you and I may disagree on how to move towards it. You and I may even disagree on exactly what “it” is. We each bring different perspectives, different knowledge and experience. But we know our society can be better. And we know the road to getting there is complex.

By talking about the issues and exploring the options, by studying our opinions and understanding what works and what doesn’t work, by thinking together about facts, values, and strategies we can slowly work towards our collective goal.

Civic studies is about understanding how to make the world better.

And, if you’re looking for more, here’s the description on the Tisch College website:

  1. Civic studies is the intellectual component of civic renewal, which is the movement to improve societies by engaging their citizens.
  2. The goal of civic studies is to develop ideas and ways of thinking helpful to citizens, understood as co-creators of their worlds. We do not define “citizens” as official members of nation-states or other political jurisdictions. Nor does this formula invoke the word “democracy.” One can be a co-creator in many settings, ranging from loose social networks and religious congregations to the globe. Not all of these venues are, or could be, democracies.
  3. Civic studies asks “What should we do?” It is thus inevitably about ethics (what is right and good?), about facts (what is actually going on?), about strategies (what would work?), and about the institutions that we co-create. Good strategies may take many forms and use many instruments, but if a strategy addresses the question “What should we do?”, then it must guide our own actions–it cannot simply be about how other people ought to act.
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