Citizens Aren't Just Born. They're Formed
Why civil society is no substitute for a distinctively political education.
My university (yes: by press time Calvin College will be a university) recently crafted an “educational framework.” Its purpose, as I understand it, is to “operationalize” our primary mission. Three of its four categories of goals—“faith,” “learning,” and “vocation”—are standard fare for an institution of both higher learning and Christian persuasion. While the fourth category—“citizenship”—has a less obvious connection to mission, the thrust of the other three lead in its direction. A Christian university committed to learning and vocation ought to educate for citizenship, a calling none of us can escape. At least that’s my reading as a civic educator.
But what does “citizenship” look like in the nitty-gritty? This kind of document, built for accreditors as much as faculty and students, answers in the language of goals and outcomes. The goals for citizenship exhort us to engagement, cultural intelligence, ecological stewardship, and Christian service; the outcomes promise intercultural knowledge, discernment of racism, responsible participation, and virtues of empathy, courage, and justice. All worthy—even indispensable—commitments, to be sure. And the framework’s illustrations of what citizenship might look like in practice—conducting research on the care of creation, studying abroad, volunteering in a residence hall or art studio—are admirable in their own ways.
The challenge is how to educate for citizenship when civil society is not necessarily built for that purpose
But what is absent speaks just as clearly. Neither the goals nor the outcomes say anything about distinctively civic learning, a citizen’s relationship to the state, or political cultures or structures. Neither do the practical recommendations. The terms “state,” “government,” “civic,” “political,” “democracy,” and “public institution” fail to make an appearance. The impression is that citizenship is about how we serve each other in civil society, a place where citizens meet outside the state and political community. We aspire to send into the world students who embrace responsible citizenship as part of faithful discipleship, but we exclude government and the body politic from that aspiration.
Let me stipulate that civil society, under the right conditions, does help us cultivate our life in common. The evidence is deep and wide on that point, though qualified considerably by those conditions. We might come away from participation in fraternal groups and sports leagues and houses of worship with capacities and dispositions that good citizens should possess. But maybe not. And recent evidence suggests that “maybe not” describes the reality more often than some civil-society triumphalists see or admit. Civil society, it seems, will not save politics.
My university is not alone in misplacing political formation. The problem is widespread, even in the Western democracies we might expect to pay closest attention to educating citizens. The problem is also urgent, as public institutions and political cultures across the globe crack under the pressures of new forces and movements. Our efforts at civic education are not up to the task of the political moment. The challenge is how to educate for citizenship when civil society is not necessarily built for that purpose—and might even, under the right conditions, choke the effort. The challenge is how to educate for citizenship by taking politics and its locus in the state seriously.
As is so often the case, a certain French liberal from the early nineteenth century shows us a path.
Great Schools of Citizenship, Free of Charge and Always Open
Countless scholars of civil society have turned to Alexis de Tocqueville as their patron saint. And who could fault them? Tocqueville’s Democracy in America is indeed a rich masterwork, a pathbreaking study of a democratic “wave” on the edge of breaking across the North Atlantic. He called for “a new political science . . . for a world altogether new,” and then answered his own call through trenchant comparison of the Old and New Worlds. The result is a deep reservoir of insight into the causes and effects of what he called “equality of condition,” the democratic assumption that the vagaries of birth ought not determine one’s economic and social destiny. For Tocqueville, this assumption played out as much in the realm of the interpersonal and social-psychological as the institutional, in the norms and “habits of the heart” of the new democratic citizen.
The democratic experiment exhilarated Tocqueville, while at the same time he hypothesized that its flattened hierarchies could easily spiral into a threat to the very liberty and equality it celebrated. Democratic citizens, restless and isolated, would puzzle over their obligations without the fixed signposts of aristocracy; they would turn to a “mild” despotism of paternalistic government or give themselves over to a tyranny of the majority’s will. (After all, if we are all equal, whose will is better than another’s?) Yet in his travels Tocqueville did not see those threats realized. His explanation for their absence has been fertile ground for his many interpreters.
He found that the American experience of association—of joining and participating in groups—pushed against the “individualism” that might give a toehold to despotism and majoritarianism. He observed that “American of all ages, all conditions, all minds constantly unite” in a great panoply of groups. The reason is a straightforward, if not always self-aware, calculus about the benefits of mutuality. Individuals are “independent and weak” and “can do almost nothing by themselves, and none can oblige those like themselves to lend them their cooperation. . . . They therefore all fall into impotence if they do not learn to aid each other freely.”
Note the emphasis on that verb: to learn. Democracy in America, which contains dozens of references to “teach,” “learn,” “school,” and “education,” reveals Tocqueville as a probing observer of civic learning, as a scholar, in the fullest sense, of the pedagogies of politics. This side of his work is often missed among “neo-Tocquevillian” interpreters. His message is that the key underlying mechanism for how groups work is educative, not coercive or merely transactional. Moreover, groups of all kinds perform this function; formal educational institutions are only a small player in the expansive culture of civic learning. A distinctively democratic education “arises principally from experience”; citizens are “habituated little by little to govern” through participation in the full range of associations.
Tocqueville surveys an array of what he calls “civil” associations, which are groups focused on shared purposes but not on direct political action. He gives considerable attention to family, commercial groups, the arts, and religion, among other civil associations, and notes the variety of ways they reshape self-interest into a sense of the benefits of common welfare (self-interest “well” or “rightly” understood). Over the decades, scholars across the globe have revisited these sections of Democracy in America to ground their own thinking about civil society. I am one of them.
For all the social influence of these associations, however, Tocqueville did not locate the most robust civic learning here. The greatest power in citizen education rested in “political” associations and public institutions, not civil ones. These included parties and what today we would call interest groups, as well as deliberative bodies under the direct auspices of the state. He is especially enthusiastic about several of them.
On the use of juries: Tocqueville declared that “the jury teaches each man not to recoil before responsibility for his own acts—a virile disposition without which there is no political virtue.” Hence, “One ought to consider [the jury] as a school, free of charge and always open.”
On the experience of party factionalism: New immigrants to the United States started “their political education” in the places they fled, which exposed them to “that rough school” of party factionalism. That experience, carried with them to their new homes, “can . . . be considered great schools, free of charge, where all citizens come to learn the general theory of associations,” including lessons for citizens in how “to submit their will to that of all the others and to subordinate their particular efforts to the common action.”
On participation in local government: Tocqueville was particularly interested in the educative power of localism, which he found exemplified in New England. “The institutions of a [New England] township are to freedom what primary schools are to science; they put it within reach of the people; they make them taste its peaceful employ and habituate them to making use of it.”
Tocqueville delves into other political associations, but the overall point is that groups organized around political convictions and goals and oriented toward public deliberation carry the distinctive qualities and virtues of democratic citizenship. Perhaps most important is the capacity to work across lines of difference with an openness to compromise, a proto-pluralism that is more characteristic of political than civil life. He writes,
In civil life, each man can, if he must, fancy that he is in a state of self-sufficiency. In politics he can never imagine it. When a people has a public life, the idea of association and the desire to associate with each other are therefore presented daily to the minds of all citizens: whatever natural repugnance men have for acting in common, they will always be ready to do it in the interest of a party. Thus politics generalizes the taste for and habit of association; it makes a crowd of men who would otherwise have lived alone desire to unite, and teaches the art of doing it.
The sequencing of associational life here is subtle yet important. Tocqueville submits that political association nurtures civil association, but not necessarily the other way around. As he puts it, “Civil associations . . . facilitate political associations; but . . . political association singularly develops and perfects civil association.” Through politics, we learn the “habits” and “art” of association because we are compelled to make decisions through “common action” despite our myriad interests and with important public goods at stake. We then take those practices and practical wisdom with us to our churches and soccer leagues. But those non-political associations—where interests are not as varied, the stakes are (often) lower, the structures are (often) not as flat, and final decisions lack coercive power—do not necessarily develop the same democratic muscles.
Misplacing Political Formation
Scholars have found little empirical evidence that social trust cultivates trust in public institutions.
Jump forward in time to consider again my university’s educational framework, but now with Tocqueville as our guide. How might he see it? My guess is that he would observe that the framework privileges service in civil associations over political ones, and for that reason it gets education for democratic citizenship backward. And if he replicated his trip today, as a tour across the United States and other Western countries after the democratic wave had crested, he would be surprised to find the same service-in-civil-society assumptions widespread among civic educators.
The education theorist Harry Boyte labels this orientation “communitarian.” The term came into vogue in the 1980s and early 1990s, as public intellectuals of various ideological stripes worried that the values and virtues of communal solidarity were diminished by certain strands of liberal thought and practice. Over time, educators translated communitarian ideas into curricula and pedagogies, with a heavy emphasis on service through non-profit voluntarism. (Think here of service learning, for example.) Boyte contrasts this orientation with a second predominant framework, what he calls “civics,” which focuses on acquiring cognitive knowledge of one’s rights and liberties (and the liberal theories that justify them) as a foundation for exercising individual power. Tocqueville would undoubtedly sympathize with communitarian fears that the civics model smuggles in an individualistic ethos that lacks a sense of solidarity. But he would still find the communitarian account of citizenship education impoverished by its inattention to politics itself.
A communitarian civic educator might respond that Tocqueville’s analysis is time-bound or excessively idealistic. He treats New England townships, for example, as a model, but the critic might point out that that kind of participatory localism is long gone, if it ever existed at all. Today’s democracies, the communitarian might say, are much larger and arguably more complex. They are also at a moment of crisis. Our public institutions are teetering or already broken; our leaders flatly refuse to move from crude self-interest to self-interest well understood; our political cultures are beset by polarization and resentful populisms and nationalisms. If civic educators work in the subset of higher education that is Christian, they might also cite a fading confidence in the capacity of our institutions to address political questions at this disruptive moment within (Western) Christianity itself. Why invite our students to work out their calling in such a hopeless public square? Better to work in churches and fraternal organizations, faith-based non-profits and sports leagues. Those associations do not suffer from the same political dysfunctions as city halls and state capitals.
I want to believe, however, that most of my colleagues, including the authors of my university’s educational framework, would reject this basically defeatist vision of citizenship, even if they agree with some of its assumptions. They might say that the communitarian framework rests in a more hopeful vision. It allows us to double-down on our obligation to serve the least advantaged and to challenge the idolatry that puts the self before anything else. This vision taps into accounts of civil society as a place that both shapes the dispositions and habits of service while at the same time protects citizens from the worst impulses of the liberal state. In the prominent metaphors of civil-society scholarship, civil associations are “seedbeds” of civic virtue and “mediators” between citizens and the state.
Tending the Public Garden
But how well does that seedbed and mediator support education for citizenship, especially in the democratic state? It might be helpful to update some of Tocqueville’s answers to that question with contemporary social science.
If civil society is indeed a seedbed for democratic citizenship, what would it need to grow? Here is a selective list of possibilities: a store of civic knowledge; clarity about how individual and common interests might converge; a willingness to compromise on the distribution of basic goods, even across lines of deep difference; openness to working and mobilizing in groups; distinctive skills of leadership and communication; sophistication about the tension between trusting public institutions, on the one hand, and holding them accountable, on the other; support for the kind of pluralism that protects conviction yet remains open to diversity; and a clear-eyed understanding that political participation means engaging institutions that wield coercive power, often in the form of violence. All these elements, I would submit, are essential to a citizen’s healthy participation in modern democratic politics. Not so with participation in civil society, where pluralism is optional and use of coercion is unjust. This raises the question of how participation in civil society might provide the kind of civic learning necessary for democratic citizenship.
Let me illustrate with a common example out of the large literature on “social capital,” which Robert Putnam, the scholar-dean of the concept, has defined as a set of “norms and networks” that foster collective decision-making. An essential democratic norm is trust, without which human beings could not easily act together. After all, if I do not see democratic institutions or fellow citizens as reliable or responsive, why bother participating? Some seedbed narratives about civil society suggest that associations in civil society—houses of worship, for example—are the key nurseries for trust. We learn to trust through regular experience with co-religionists; they become trustworthy partners because we have known them to be reliable and responsive in the past.
But to say that I trust my co-religionists is not to say that I have a trusting disposition, or even that I am more likely to have that disposition. I might trust my co-religionists without projecting a similar trust on public institutions. I might also trust my co-religionists as fellow believers without trusting them as members of the body politic. Putnam himself notes that there is no “logical” connection between my interpersonal (or “social”) trust and the trust in public institutions and fellow citizens that democracies need to thrive.
Even if we made the case that civil society is an important element of political education, it is not enough.
Not only is there no necessary connection, but scholars have also found little empirical evidence that social trust cultivates trust in public institutions. Tocqueville was closer to the mark when he suggested nearly two centuries ago that the dynamic may work in the reverse: Our experience of political associations, where we learn the “art” of solidarity in the midst of deep difference, has the “singular” effect of strengthening our bonds within civil society. Modern social science has indeed confirmed that relationship, even while it has failed to find the reverse.
Colonized Civil Society
What about that second metaphor, that civil society mediates between citizens and the state? Peter Berger and Richard John Neuhaus, in their influential To Empower People, helped to popularize the concept of the mediating institution, with a subtitle that hammers the concept home: From State to Civil Society. The arguments in this vein have come in different forms, frequently with a reference to Tocqueville. Or Edmund Burke. My rule of thumb is that any time I encounter a reference to Burke’s (often-misinterpreted) quote that we “love the little platoon we belong to in society,” I am likely to see an argument that celebrates mediating institutions. Yuval Levin’s recent The Fractured Republic evokes the spirit of both Tocqueville and Burke to commend “the institutions and relationships that stand between the isolated individual and the national state.”
To mediate the state-citizen relationship means that associations within civil society must have some level of autonomy vis-à-vis conventional politics. It is difficult to mediate a relationship when the mediator is co-opted by one or the other party in that relationship. Tocqueville suggested this very point, for example, when he observed that religion has its greatest political influence in the United States when citizens perceive it as least political. Religion gets moral power by remaining aloof from the ebb and flow of parties in power. But Tocqueville also reminds us that the relationship between the state and associations like religion is a two-way street. Political associations have a habit of colonizing civil society.
We see that dynamic clearly in the affective polarization that has afflicted recent politics across Western democracies. Partisans have powerful emotional attachments to their in-group and animosity toward out-groups, which is not unusual in the political sphere. But those associations have spilled out of the conventional sphere of politics into ostensibly “non-political” areas of life, including associations we choose through housing, media consumption, marriage, parenting style, and religious congregation. Tocqueville would be troubled by an emerging area in political science that partisanship increasingly shapes religious identity, rather than the other way around. In the American context, the idea, to put it simply, is, I am more religious because I identify with the Republican Party, or less religious because I belong to the Democratic Party. I am not a Republican because I am more religious, or a Democrat because I am less religious. This empirical research, led by Michele Margolis (From Politics to the Pews), David Campbell, and Geoffrey Layman, among many others, raises profound questions about the autonomy of civil society as a mediator between individuals and the state.
In a blunt assessment, scholars Matthew Crenson and Benjamin Ginsberg, in Downsizing Democracy, suggest that education rooted in communitarian assumptions “is no longer about the collective activity of governing. . . . Lessons in service have supplanted training for sovereignty.” Their immediate target is service-learning curricula in elementary and secondary education, which they contrast with the “traditional” classroom, the domain of Horace Mann and John Dewey and later reformers, who emphasized elections and other pedagogies of democratic experience. Their broader critique is that a widespread service orientation has moved civic formation from collective action to individual voluntarism, and in the process undermined the sovereignty of the people.
I’m not quite ready to go that far. I raise these points about the seedbed and mediator narratives as reservations, not thorough critiques or statist broadsides. Civil society can teach us capacities and virtues that matter to public life, and civil society can position itself between governing authorities and, as Tocqueville put it, the “independent and weak” individual citizen. But even if we made the case that civil society is an important element of political education, it is not enough.
Educating for citizenship invites us to imagine government and political community as settings for doing justice. Perhaps a start in that act of imagination is to reframe goals and outcomes like those in my university’s educational framework.
Here are some of the outcomes that I imagine would be part of an education that takes civic life seriously. As you read through them, ask yourself: How might I grade myself on these outcomes?
Students will understand the state as a site to deliberate about shared goods—and indeed students will develop their own deliberative skills. Students will recognize why technical expertise is not a substitute for public deliberation about matters of justice and civic virtue. Students will evaluate the pitfalls and merits of the exercise of political power at various levels of government, from the local through the subnational to the national and transnational. Students will distinguish pluralism as a political principle from its other manifestations; they will also identify the relevance of those distinctions for human liberty, including their own. Students will assess the causes, empirical effects, and philosophical implications of the growth of the administrative state in the twentieth century. Students will interpret the hollowing out of local communities with reference not only to diminished associations within civil society but also to the eroding authority and responsiveness of public institutions. Students will analyze populism and polarization, globalization and cosmopolitanism, race and inequality, economic development and ecological degradation, and a host of other disruptive forces as inextricably tied to state power.
Finally, students will develop a theological imagination that helps them see the relevance of Christian conviction for each of these purposes. That goal is, I suspect, the most difficult political habit to develop, especially in this moment when religion’s nexus with politics across the globe seems so detached from theological moorings. But perhaps faith has been susceptible to the wiles of power precisely because the faithful have not formed themselves to resist or redeem it. That seems to me the best argument for renewing our vision and practices of political education.Subscribe