Civic Studies

I attended a seminar with some of my colleagues today on the topic of “Civic Studies” – or more specifically, discussing the question “what is Civic Studies?”

Despite my discomfort with definitions, I did try my hand at explaining the term in this January 2014 post. Here’s what I had to say then:

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.

I hadn’t gone back to read that post before the conversation today, so it is interesting to look back now to reflect on how my thinking has evolved and on how my definition may differ from the definitions others give.

Perhaps the first thing I notice is that my definition is hardly academic. Civic Studies is an academic, intellectual movement. Not necessarily a school or a department, but a distinctive school of thought which can be distinguished in its similarities and differences to other academic disciplines.

But I’m not much of an academic. Not really, anyway. My background is more as a practioner, and my definition tends to be driven by that practice.

I don’t really care how Civic Studies is related to but distinctive from Political Science, Sociology, Philosophy, or other disciplines. I mean, I do care, but those distinctions do little for me as a definition. Definitions placing Civic Studies in the panoply of academia are valuable but don’t help me, personally, understand it.

I want to know what Civic Studies does. I want to know what Civic Studies believes.

I suppose those are unusual questions for academia, but they seem appropriate for a discipline dedicated to integrating theory and practice.

So my definition is more practice oriented. And looking back, I mostly stand by my definition from over a year ago. In fact, I think I raise some of the same points today.

I suppose if I really had to boil it down, I might say something like this:

Civic Studies puts individual agency at the center of its thought, exploring how you and I (literally – you reading this) can affect change. It studies how we can build and sustain institutions that effectively engage all people, and it firmly believes that societies are better when all people are engaged. Finally, it recognizes that we are all different, and that we are bound to disagree on what makes a Good Society and on how to get there. As such, it embraces debate and discussion as critical to the perpetual work of building a better world.


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