Our Story So Far

The New Civics ECSP Story So Far: Defining ‘New Civics’ and Contributing to the Field

by Helen Haste
Updated August 2017

The Spencer Foundation’s New Civics agenda has guided their support for our Early Career Scholars’ Program. We hope to contribute significantly to this agenda. It challenges the conventional emphasis on civic action as being primarily voting behaviour. It also disrupts the assumption that the formal school environment is the main source of civic education. New Civics work has massively expanded the definition of participation; indeed as one of our Scholars, Jake Fay, puts it: “If civics is no longer simply the political, to what else does it pertain? Is there no action that is not, somehow, civic?” It has widened questions about the origins of active participation (and of alienation): What information is important, beyond civic knowledge? What salient skill and efficacy-building experiences happen beyond the democratic classroom? Our Early Career Scholars’ work in internship teams and dissertation projects has contributed to these valuable developments, as our website demonstrates. Over 180 journal articles, book chapters and conference papers have been produced by our Scholars.We are seeing a sea-change, a shift of perspective. ‘Expanding’ a field or topic can be just ‘adding on’ –- rich, but not necessarily transformative. For a field truly to expand, it is essential to see things differently. One of our Scholars, Bryan McAllister-Grande, says: “New Civics follows other academic and social movements in crossing multiple temporal, geographic, intellectual, and cultural borderlands. It conceives of actors as multidimensional, meaning-making subjects, rather than strictly political or social beings. [I]t might also be …defined as an age of multiplicity and expressionism, in which actors construct diffuse and fluid identities beyond borders."

How does immersing ourselves in a field do this? Our ECSP Scholars’ reflections on their experiences are featured on this site. Five themes in their accounts reflect transformations. The five themes are:

  • conceptualizing community,
  • how identity is central,
  • the radical civic and cultural impact of new media,
  • the reality and origins of ‘civic skills’
  • what institutional structures and groups should we be targeting?

In each case, our Scholars’ work challenges prior assumptions in the field.

Conceptualizing community

A community is a physical, psychological, emotional and aesthetic space within which the individual is constantly negotiating meaning and agency. In much traditional work in civics, ‘community’ seems a backdrop, mainly locating the citizen demographically with an implicit message that power and status define available resources and opportunities. Or ‘community’ may be seen as the place where - not very ‘politically’ significant - civic action occurs. Robert Putnam however argues that community activities create the social capital that makes for healthy civic life, so community is a locus of vibrant interaction rather than ‘background’. Furthermore, the individual is dynamically embedded in not one, but numerous, communities.

The Western tradition makes It often difficult to escape the myth of the autonomous individual, the primary agent at most influenced and or facilitated by community. In reality, the individual is in constant dialogue with others, co-constructing meaning, sharing communication actively and passively, and in particular, drawing on cultural narratives which highlight values, position others and provide route maps for empowerment and efficacy. Community affects civic engagement interactively, not just as a backdrop, and we need to explore just what those dynamic interaction processes are.

Collective narratives are a core resource of a community, the shared stories that explain the origins of the current state of affairs, prioritize specific values and goals, and affirm the community’s behaviors and practices, including what is deemed both effective and appropriate for achieving civic (or other) goals. Establishing collective narratives is central to building a community, and also determines its symbolic boundaries. Changing a community’s collective narratives is an important part of effecting change. We see this particularly in situations of conflict.

Subjective experience is a vital dimension of community. ‘Community’ is often presented as a specific and localized constellation of people, familiar and connected to the individual, and ‘society’ or ‘nation’ is the larger space, beyond the community though accessed through it. When people communicate they are in fact defining ‘their’ subjective community and they are building commitment and engagement with it, especially when they are working for improvements. The action of participation is collaborative. It requires engagement with a community of like-minded people using their resources towards the same goals, whether these are local or national - helping people to improve town community organizations or lobbying the distant government for legal change.

When people join together for civic action, they are, first, creating a subjectively meaningful community of actual persons to which they can make a commitment. However, ‘community’ has a twofold meaning; it may be a category of persons for whom one wishes to take responsibility, or it may be the community of persons who share that sense of responsibility. For example, civic action can be directed to improving one’s own community, such as one’s ethnic, gender, value or geographical group. Or civic action can instead be directed to an ‘other’ group for whom, despite being an outsider, one feels a moral commitment.

An example is the work of Vidur Chopra with refugee youth living in refugee camps, exploring their sense of civic agency. He asks: “What makes young people living in some of the most disadvantaged communities in the developing world engage in their communities or create positive change? ..... Why [do] they choose to engage or delineate themselves from their communities, despite living in such harsh conditions?”

Amy Cheung has been working with Asian American young people. She observes youth participating in collective action through community service, protest, issue-based advocacy, community organizing, education, and involvement in youth organizations. She says, “Asian American teenagers plan and deliver workshops on affordable housing for their peers, lead walking tours of Boston’s Chinatown covering the role of immigrants in the neighborhood’s development, and produce their own radio show with original content deliberating topics such as gentrification and the personal meaning of “Americanization”….. Such activities are pursued by youth because of a commitment to make their voices heard publicly, to join with others in deliberation, action, and education on community issues." She also notes, “Through the process of participating in collective efforts, young people develop accountability to and care for one another, appreciating that ‘my work’ is part of ‘your work’, which generates a productive civic interdependence."

Identity is central

Identity is closely linked to community. Self-identity is affirmed by interaction with a like-minded community (and by differentiation from communities who on salient criteria are defined as ‘other’). How I represent myself is in constant dialogue with how significant others in my community confirm or deny that self-representation. The perception and interpretation of both physical and social community space are intertwined with defining self-identity, and this is an active and iterative process.

Jessica Fei, for example, is examining how people participate in places. “Whether it’s a town hall or a subway car, a street corner or the blogosphere, every place we inhabit constitutes a sphere of belonging in which we can practice citizenship acts that can carry social and political implications that reverberate beyond that one sphere." She is part of an international project developing learning communities in which youth explore their own identities and worldviews, and engage meaningfully with people whose experiences and perspectives may be different: in “Story/Space,” young people exchange stories about significant places in their lives.

Understanding identity requires understanding the cultural narratives that inform who one is, in relation to whom, with what power implications and with what potential scenarios for action. Civic identity, seeing oneself as effective civic agent (or not), is intimately entwined with one’s sense of self. The community’s collective stories are a major resource for how the individual ‘stories’ one’s self -- one’s nation, ethnicity, partisanship, and why the attributes that are valued in these narratives feel important and personally engaging. Civic identity also encompasses beliefs about one’s own potential for being an effective agent, beliefs that stem in part from cultural narratives about one’s community’s empowerment (or lack of) as well as the experience of being efficacious.

Identity is also about positioning; locating oneself vis à vis others, as insiders or outsiders to the community, and in status and power relations. These may include for example perceptions of deprivation and therefore one’s potential responsibility to take action for social justice. Positioning of self and others derives from one’s community stories. Empowerment often derives from changing positioning. Repositioning is also a core element in managing moves between communities. Kim Stevens’ research is with youth volunteers from non-dominant backgrounds (racial and ethnic minority, low-income, etc.), college students who attend highly selective universities. She explores how they make meaning of their social positions and identity as community service volunteers, and how they can come to operate as active agents, continuously creating and recreating their identities as civic actors.

The radical impact of new media

New media, and new technology in general, have had three major effects on civic participation. First, they have enabled rapid mobilization for direct action or for making one’s voice heard. Second, they have removed the hierarchy of knowledge dissemination; news is no longer filtered through the press oligarchies but is both accessible to, and disseminated by, ordinary citizens, and anyone with Internet links can in principle access every piece of knowledge in the entire history of the world. Third, they have generated hitherto impossible communities, removing social, geographical and (to an extent) linguistic boundaries. As Janet Kwok, our Program’s first graduate, notes, “The internet implies different boundaries because of the interaction among people who might not ever encounter each other in person for a variety of reasons, and as a result, surprising types of engagement and participation are possible."

This has transformed how ‘community’ is conceptualized and bounded. It has also democratized participation, access to information and potential impact on powerful institutions. (It has also of course created a world in which everyone who is connected to any technology can potentially be tracked, which could be a threat to democracy). These developments have considerable implications for empowerment and also routes for civic education. They particularly impact on hitherto powerless and voiceless groups, such as young, or marginalized, people, who are learning how to manage their newly accessible audiences and communities, as well as how to manage a tsunami of possible information. Civic education practice has to catch up with the huge potential of this.

Appreciating the impact of new media requires stepping inside the perspective of the young people whose world is defined by their access to instant communication. Critics talk about 100 year old practices and 200 year old institutions. Increasingly we feel both entitled and enabled to make our voice heard (even if in fact the audience is limited and already persuaded). This is a truly major move away from a model of democracy in which the processes of legislation and social change operate through elected representatives, who may consult their constituents (at least nominally and in order to maintain their seats), but largely take responsibility for lawmaking and governance.

Historically, pressure groups, non-governmental agencies and the media gave voice to those members of the public who chose to organize themselves to speak. The implications of a vocal populace with access to huge swathes of communication are yet to be fully realized. The ‘Arab Spring’ and other recent movements are salutary; new media were hugely important in their emergence, but in the absence of well-organized civic and political groups to take serious leadership roles, the impetus was diffused and (often) the power vacuum was filled by forces different from those desired by the activists.

Exploring new media issues contributes to our understanding of community processes, and new media are highly salient to civic identity. Our Program has explored how young people use media, in overtly social movements or in broader community activities. Because engagement in and through new media is so central to young people’s relationships with the world, it is vital to understand how their civic identity develops within the framework of communication, self-presentation and feedback from others online and to consider how to utilize them in education and promoting civic engagement.

The civic skills required to navigate the world of new media are not necessarily the same as those conventionally understood for effective civic life. For example, Emily Weinstein has explored “how digital technologies and social media are changing young people’s experiences." She researched young civic actors’ patterns of civic identity expression on social media and found most civic youth tended toward civic expression online. In a follow-up study two years later. she and her colleagues found many youth had changed their online civic expression patterns in the direction of quieting their civic voices online. Emily has also worked with Common Sense Media’s Education Team, developing resources to foster different types of community conversations about youth’s digital lives.

Janet Kwok notes another element of digital experience and civic agency: She says, “Refusing to acknowledge the new perniciousness of cyber-bullying as somehow “kids’ stuff” is not only dangerous, but also tells children that their conflicts and involvement in these is somehow inauthentic. This has implications for learning about civic engagement—if you feel like your own issues and concerns aren’t legitimate, it will be very difficult to suddenly believe that they matter.”

The reality and origins of civic skills

A range of necessary skills enables effective civic participation. However there is tension between two goals of civic education. One goal is to generate citizens who support and actively maintain the current social and political system, criticizing its flaws and limitations (if at all) from within. second goal is to generate citizens who are critically reflective about the purposes and principles behind the system, and who are equipped and willing to actively challenge aspects of the system if they feel it falls short of its ideals and goals. healthy civil society requires both functions. However even in democracies, the second goal may be regarded with suspicion; not all dissent or questioning is welcome. The different goals are evident in any policy document: indeed in such documents, what is left out is as revealing as what is present.

The range of necessary skills includes those which prepare the young person to make sound political choices, take part in collective decision-making, conflict resolution and negotiation, discuss controversial issues, and monitor government action on behalf of public interests. These skills include the cognitive capacity to analyze and synthesize information and arguments, take multiple perspectives, and defend positions. Participatory skills include negotiation, conflict management, and consensus building. In addition are the socio-emotional skills needed for healthy relationships with family, peers and colleagues, which contribute to a civil or democratic way of life.

These skills can further either goal of civic education; the crucial question is the degree to which critical thinking is applied to the principles behind the system, and how they are reflected in policy and practice. James Noonan suggests that “the capacity of citizens to make informed determinations about the role and responsibilities of citizenship is the most essential civic competency.”

How these skills are conceptualized and prioritized informs specific education policies and practices, whether in school or the community, and the kind of mentoring and facilitation required, whether from adults or peers. Two of our Scholars have addressed teachers’ perceptions and roles. James Noonan has been working with American teachers, helping design effective professional learning environments; “effective learning environments for teachers and students are also highly deliberative, where people present authentic problems and negotiate differences - the capacities citizens need in a pluralistic democracy."

Siwen Zhang has been working on Chinese teachers’ perceptions of a good citizen and a good person, and how these are reflected in their narratives of civic protest. What are teachers’ perceptions of appropriate solutions for addressing social issues? To what extent do they experience conflicts of interest as educators, parents, and citizens in how they communicate civic responsibilities in a system under authoritarian governmental control?

Silvia Diazgranados has explored the environments that contribute to the development of civic skills; “the complex, multi-level factors that are associated with the development of citizenship competencies among children and early adolescents who are at risk of victimization, perpetration and civic disengagement.” Using large national and international datasets she explored “the ways in which civic power and civic opportunities are distributed among youth of different backgrounds in countries such as Colombia, Chile and Mexico." She also developed measures to assess “early adolescents´ performance on citizenship competencies such as perspective taking, ability to analyze evidence, capacity for empathy and sense of agency."

Bonnie Mackintosh has been working with early childhood and the nature and quality of teacher-child interactions: the relationship between social-emotional development such as self-regulation, and academic achievement. “Positive, nurturing teacher-child relationships can also help to promote critical thinking skills and collaborative learning environments, fostering a pattern of lifelong learning and questioning that is an important aspect of being an informed and involved citizen." In “safe, enriching” climates children learn that their ideas are both valued and make a unique contribution to the classroom and surrounding community. Kathleen Lynch’s research “focuses on helping children to learn critical skills and knowledge that in turn support civic learning and participation,” including “how out-of-school contexts contribute to both their academic and their social-emotional development.” She is also exploring how “children’s experiences in their mathematics and science classrooms play an important role in shaping their future public identities and orientations toward scientific and quantitative problems” an area of increasing interest to researchers.

What institutional structures and groups should we be targeting?

There is an overarching target for civic action implied in New Civics: challenging inequitable institutions and their cultural supports. Such challenging requires deconstruction both of policies and practices, and of the narratives that sustain them. This includes taking a critical perspective on historical developments in education as well on contemporary ideological perspectives on the purposes of civic education.

Bryan McAllister-Grande’s work addresses cultural narratives. He is studying the history of the American university, and its relationship to society, in the 20th century. He is interested in the relationship between debates about higher learning and the crisis of liberal societies in the mid-twentieth century. In particular, he is interested in a kind of "lost moment" during the interwar years when academics began to imagine a more worldly, pragmatic, and intercultural form of higher learning. 

Jake Fay’s work explores the tensions that arise from expanding the definition of New Civics and therefore, the discourses that underlie goals of civic education. “Embedded in reshaping the conceptual space of the New Civics are moral and ethical questions… How inclusive/exclusive should schools be of the range of opinions and beliefs students bring to school? How can school policy align with civic principles given expected disagreement about those principles?” He argues that inextricably interwoven into civic education are “moral and ethical issues regarding young people, schools, and society… issues of justice, of the limits of democratic process, of individual rights.”

Matthew Shaw has addressed the institutional practices and the underlying discourses that affect judicial decisions on race-conscious affirmative action and whether they have “visibly opened [or closed]” access to higher education—‘the path to leadership’—for students by race/ethnicity. He argues that “Central to the debate around the propriety of race-conscious affirmative action are competing notions of whether access belongs to individual students, the merits of acknowledging race qua race as a dimension of educational diversity, and the extent to which government should allow institutions to adjust for consequential prior differences in highly race-correlated K-12 educational resource allocation.” To this end he investigated undergraduate admissions and transfers, around critical points in affirmative action case law development. As he notes, these raise “profoundly civic questions which go to the heart of how government allocates limited premium benefits, to whom, and its consequences for the body civic."

Much has been written about two kinds of target population for civic education and their implications for empowerment and social justice. One is the ‘normal’ population of adequately resourced young people who experience a well-structured program of knowledge and skill acquisition, the contexts in which motivation for engagement may be nurtured, and the opportunity for those experiences that enhance both. The second population is those who are marginalized by lack of educational and community resources, poverty, and powerlessness whether due to institutional deficits or the low social power and capital of their ethnic or demographic group. For this group, civic education is seen to be about fostering empowerment through acquiring skills, but also, ultimately attacking the structural and institutional barriers that create marginalization. For some researchers and practitioners, empowerment of marginalized youth is seen as best effected through out of school community activism and the opportunities for impacting the local civic environment.

Both these approaches focus on adolescents, implicitly middle school and above, though many programs do include upper elementary schools. Worldwide, however, there are several school-based programs which assume that from kindergarten children can learn conflict resolution, interpersonal relationships, ethical sharing and so forth, and also can learn deliberative reasoning and discussion. As Bonnie Mackintosh and Kathleen Lynch, mentioned earlier, both note there is a strong case for very early development and experience that grounds socio-emotional learning and self-regulation, as a ‘proto- civic’ developmental environment.

A further category of potential civic education clients is marginalized adults, who for whatever reason have dropped out or been excluded from civic efficacy, and may have been deprived of their formal citizenship for example through incarceration, or statelessness as refugees. The young marginalized people encountered by several of our Scholars may be picked up in programs that replace, parallel, or enhance, school-based civic learning and as adults, actively engage in political action. Such programs merit our attention at least as much as school-based ones. Two of our Scholars are working with a marginalized adult population, incarcerated men.

Abena Mackall is addressing both the civic deprivation of incarcerated men and the need for programs of civic education to enable them to return to full citizenship on release: “the extreme increase in the rate of adult incarceration produces three key considerations for generating active citizenship. ….in many states individuals with felony convictions have restricted voting access. Second, former inmates face substantial social stigma and hostility from community members, often causing them to shy away from active community engagement. Last, ex-prisoners report lower levels of trust in public institutions….social isolation and political non-participation have resulted in a civically marginal class." Krista Goldstine-Cole conducted “participatory action research (PAR) with a Washington State minimum security prison. The project includes an evaluation of family-centered programming; an assessment of staff attitudes on family and family programming conducted by staff; and an offender-driven assessment of how programming impacts them.” She notes that “family programming helps to mitigate stigma and social exclusion for children and may facilitate better social-emotional development”. Participatory action research itself contributes: it may “develop the problem-solving competencies of participants. PAR may empower marginalized individuals.....by giving constitutionally disenfranchised men the opportunity to influence public policies that impact their daily lives."

In summary…

Our policy of breadth as well as depth in the research topics which we have included in the Early Career Scholars’ Program reflects our vision that to truly explore the redefinitions of ‘New Civics’ we must investigate a wide range of activities, populations, social issues and educational processes. We are pleased that from this variety, not only has a rich community of vibrant Scholars evolved, but also the five themes described above appear to be emerging as useful lenses for viewing this burgeoning field. The contributions of the Scholars will become even more evident as they move forward with their dissertations and especially with publication and other forms of dissemination, including influencing practice, worldwide, in their future professional lives. Indeed, several are already actively involved in national and international organizations working in civic education.

This report has highlighted work from some of the first two cohorts of ECSP Scholars; the work of these and subsequent cohorts is described more fully in our section on the cohorts' definitions of New Civics.

The Program depends on the intellectual inspiration, intensive support and input from the three other members of the ECSP management Committee: Robert Selman, Meira Levinson, and Howard Gardner, and the many colleagues, in Harvard and elsewhere, who are affiliated to the community and/or who provide valuable internships for the Scholars. We have also had great administrative support from the three successive Coordinators of the Program – Liz Duraisingh, Julia Higdon and Brent Maher.