Jessica Roney on the Civic Culture of Colonial Philadelphia

GovernedOver at the most recent issue of Common-Place, Temple University historian Jessica Roney discusses her recent book Governed by a Spirit of Opposition: The Origins of American Political Practice in Colonial Philadelphia.

Here is a taste:

I first came across the concept of a “civic technology” in Johann Neem’s fine book, Creating a Nation of Joiners: Democracy and Civil Society in Early National Massachusetts. The concept resonated powerfully with me as an important intervention in how we think about voluntary associations.

The eighteenth-century men of Philadelphia I describe both borrowed and departed from an array of religious, craft, and political organizational strategies as they sought to find an effective way to organize toward a particular end, and to keep their members willing to invest their time, energy, and resources. Many of them failed. We know more about the successes because they left behind a better paper trail, but there in itself is another reason to think of voluntary associations as a technology.
Living in the early twenty-first century as a new generation of technologies make possible popular mobilization at a speed and scale never before dreamed of, it is easy to take for granted or find it self-evident that people organize together. The things they use to do so, and especially those instruments that make it possible—the Internet, cellphones, the many and ever-changing platforms of social media—those are the technologies. In a similar fashion in the eighteenth century, technological changes related to the rise of print culture facilitated and encouraged collective organizing in new ways and on a new scale. But if we step back and remember that the format of voluntary association itself had to be invented, that it was not self-evident, that it took time and trial-and-error, we can appreciate that the elaboration of successful forms of voluntary association was itself a kind of technological innovation.

As organizers throughout the Atlantic world sought to mobilize men (and by the end of the eighteenth century, women) outside the parameters of church or state, they borrowed heavily from the strategies of earlier voluntary associations that worked. In Philadelphia, men found it easier and faster to adopt a model that had already been tested, rather than generate their own from scratch. All twenty or so colonial Philadelphia fire companies, for example, copied, often verbatim, the articles of association from the first successful company, the Union Fire Company, founded in 1736. The blue-print, as it were, circulated freely, allowing a diverse range of men over a long time span to adopt and adapt the technology to their own needs. Innovations along the way then became available to still-later groups as they studied the available models and selected those strategies their organizers thought would best meet their objectives and keep the membership energized. The civic technology of voluntary associations, then, was never proprietary. Philadelphians borrowed from England and Scotland, from their churches, from joint-stock companies, and from one another as they created their own innovative strategies tailored to their own needs.

That this technology was indeed civic stems from two sources. First, the preponderance of organizations—at least in Philadelphia—that were the most effective at mobilizing and retaining members over long periods of time had at least some explicit desire to contribute to the public good. Second, even where organizations were less focused on explicit civic functions, their members understood their associations still to contribute to a civil society—meant both in the sense of one characterized by polite sociability and as a collection of citizens operating outside the scope of church or state.

Read the entire interview here.

Academy of Arts and Sciences on the Importance of the Liberal Arts

In case you haven’t seen it yet, the American Academy of Arts & Sciences has released a report, entitled “The Heart of the Matter,” calling for the revitalization of the humanities and other liberal arts disciplines.  The authors of the report ask “who will lead America into a bright future?”  Here is the answer it proposes:

Citizens who are educated in the broadest possible sense, so that they can participate in their own governance and engage with the world.  An adaptable and creative workforce.  Experts in national security, equipped with the cultural understanding, knowledge of social dynamics, and language proficiency to lead our foreign service and military through complex global conflicts.  Elected officials and a broader public who exercise civil political discourse, founded on an appreciation of the ways our differences and commonalities have shaped our rich history.  We must prepare ourselves and invest in the next generation to be these enlightened leaders.

The report continues:

As we strive to create a move civil public discourse, a more adaptable and creative workforce, and a more secure nation, the humanities and social sciences are the heart of the matter, the keeper of the republic–a source of national memory and civic vigor, cultural understanding and communication, individual fulfillment and the ideals we hold in common.

The report identifies three goals for advancing the humanities:

1.  “Educate Americans in the knowledge, skills, and understanding they will need to thrive in a twenty-first century democracy.”  This requires investments in literacy education, civic education, greater access to online sources and teaching materials, and public engagement.

2.”Foster a society that is innovative, competitive, and strong.”  This requires investment in research, a plan to communicate the importance of the humanities to the public, a strong humanities-based curriculum in schools, and support for teachers.

3. “Equip the nation for leadership in an interconnected world.”  This requires the promotion of language learning, the expansion of education in international affairs, and the support of study abroad programs.

Members of the commission who worked on this report include: David Brooks, Ken Burns, Gerald Early, Drew Gilpin Faust, Dana Gioia, Annette Gordon-Reed, and Anthony Grafton.

This sounds great.  Let’s get started!  Where do I sign up!

Humanities and Civic Life

Paula Krebs is the dean of the College of Humanities and Social Sciences at Bridgewater State University (MA) and a member of the board of directors of the Rhode Island Council for the Humanities.  In a recent piece at Inside Higher Ed, she reflects on the relationship between the humanities and the cultivation of civic and community life.  Here is a taste:

Through my role in public humanities, I have come to understand that the humanities are what allow us to see ourselves as members of a civic community. Public history, public art, shared cultural experiences make us members of communities. This link has not been stressed enough in defense of the academic humanities. It’s past time to make this important connection — to help our boards of trustees, our communities, and our legislators to know what the humanities brings to civil society and gives to students as they enter the workforce.

Martin Marty on Seminary and Public Life

As some of my readers know, I have a Masters of Divinity (MDiv) degree from a well-known evangelical seminary.  I also received an M.A. in Church History from the same seminary, which served as a springboard to my future graduate work in American history and an eventual job as a history professor. 

When I arrived at seminary I figured out pretty quickly that I did not want become a minister. But I still decided to finish the MDiv degree.  Though I knew I would not enter the ministry or even pursue ordination, I thought that broad training in theology, Biblical studies, moral philosophy and practical theology would help me to be a more thoughtful Christian in the church, the academy, and public life.

I thought about my decision to finish the MDiv degree after reading Martin Marty’s response to Libby Nelson’s recent Inside Higher Ed piece on the decline of seminary education in America.  Marty believes that the way to revitalize theological seminaries and divinity schools is to “locate” them “in the public economy.”  Here is a taste of his piece at Sightings:

Now to the attached source.  If its author, Libby Nelson, writes about a “crisis in theological education,” even if it takes off from the story of one seminary, she wisely confers with and cites leaders, such as Stephen Graham, of the Association of Theological Schools. Together, they chronicle chiefly the fiscal dimensions of downturns and changes in the public ethos out of which the cohorts of seminarians traditionally have come. Name anything that hits higher and especially graduation or professional education in most fields, and you will find that it hits all this harder in theological and ministerial education.
We won’t repeat what is in the source. The single purpose here is to try to locate seminaries and graduate divinity schools in the public economy, whether this refers to notice, status, spirituality, politics, or more. Leaders, of course, are asking how to adapt and innovate. As online education increases at the expense of group-“formation” of leaders, as more and more second-career candidates turn to theological education even as the total number of aspirants to ministries decline, they are brain-storming, think-tanking, praying, planning, and hoping. They can point to many positive signs and to the need for ever-better educated and trained religious leaders, even as they have to ask whether the old model (often of denominationally-based) seminaries based on liberal-arts undergraduate training will meet the needs of ministries when science-and-religion, belief-and-unbelief, indifference and “difference,” spirituality and alternatives, are warring for allegiance and commitment among among citizens.

Let’s Rank Colleges on a "Civic Scale"

Ellen McCullough-Lovell, the president of Marlboro College in Vermont, proposes a new way to evaluate colleges and universities.  Rather than reward them on the number of “degrees completed, jobs attained, and salaries earned,” why not evaluate them based on how courses contribute to democratic behaviors and how alumni demonstrate “key civic attributes.”

I am sympathetic to this idea, but if colleges want to train students for democratic life they are going to need to invest heavily in the humanities.  This will mean bucking the STEM trend that Obama has been pushing and throwing money and resources into strengthening humanities-based learning.

Here is a taste of McCulloch-Lovell’s post:

We should survey our alumni at least every five years to ask questions like:

  • Do you vote; how often?
  • Do you volunteer with a community organization?
  • Have you run for office?
  • Have you written to someone in elected office or published a letter to the editor?
  • Do you give to your favorite causes?
  • Do you attend civic meetings or organize to make change?
  • Do you participate in your children’s schools?
  • Do you attend cultural or other events that strengthen your community’s life?
  • Do you work for a nonprofit or an organization focused on education, the arts or social justice?
  • After college, did you join the Peace Corps or Teach for America?

We may find out that the more civically engaged students are also those who are the informed activists of today. Their behavior may even correlate with both economic success and the more elusive “pursuit of happiness.”

The Antihistory Presidency

obama-and-historyThere is a lot to digest from last night’s State of the Union Address.  The pundits will be out in force today talking about all of the new initiatives Obama proposed, particularly the stuff he had to say about immigration and gun control.  And how about 102-year old Desiline Victor? As the grandson of a 102-year voter, Desiline’s story tugged at my heartstrings.

Obama also talked about education last night.  And once again, he celebrated the so-called STEM disciplines (science, technology, engineering, and math).  Here is a quote from the speech:

Tonight, I’m announcing a new challenge to redesign America’s high schools so they better equip graduates for the demands of a high-tech economy.  We’ll reward schools that develop new partnerships with colleges and employers, and create classes that focus on science, technology, engineering, and math–the skill’s today’s employers are looking for to fill jobs right now and in the future.

We need young people who are trained in the STEM disciplines.  But we also need our president to get behind the humanities, especially history.

Obama’s statement that STEM disciplines provide skills that “today’s employers are looking for to fill jobs right now and in the future” is only partially true.  Anyone who attended the recent Wake Forest conference “Rethinking Success” (or watched the conference presentation online) knows that companies and employers are just as interested in humanities and liberal arts majors as they are college graduates trained in STEM fields.  In fact, some of them are MORE interested in humanities majors than those trained in traditional STEM disciplines.

Obama’s support for STEM last night also extended to higher education. He called for a new “College Scorecard” that would reward colleges and universities that provide greater access to “the education and training that today’s jobs require.”

Again, I have no problem with colleges training students in STEM disciplines.  I work at a college that does a good job at this kind of training.  But I also teach at a college committed to the humanities and the broader liberal arts–disciplines that teach skills, ways of thinking, and ways of being that are essential to the cultivation of a civil society and a thriving democracy.

Obama’s speech last night–at least the parts dealing with education–sounded eerily similar to the Republican governI do not have the time or the space here to defend the the value of history and humanities.  If you are a regular reader of he Way of Improvement Leads Home you know that I have done this many times before. (In addition to the previous link see my piece at Patheos:  “Education for a Democracy” or take a quick glance at my “So What CAN You Do With a History Major” series)

I will, however, call your attention to the irony of it all.  In his public addresses Obama has effectively used history to make his political points.  Ever since his famous breakout speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention he has been making appeals to the Declaration of Independence.  Last night he appealed, on multiple occasions, to the ideals and values that define America.  He referenced the responsibilities of the Congress to place the nation over partisan interest.  He talked about the meaning of citizenship. He asked Americans to join him in writing the next “great chapter” in national history.

Obama must be aware that Americans cannot respond to these exhortations without knowing something about the past.  How can our children write the next “great chapter” in national history when they have little knowledge of the previous chapters?

Obama’s historic rhetoric soars.  He has appealed to the civic humanism of the founding fathers and their commitment to the common good.  In his Second Inaugural Address he talked about Selma, Seneca Falls, and Stonewall.  But I wonder how many young people knew the meaning of these references.  And I wonder how many will know them in ten years. If his track record of funding history in schools is any indication, I don’t think he cares.

Barack Obama has done virtually nothing to promote a renewed sense of civic identity through the study of history.  Just ask the 2010 Washington-era teacher of the year Kenneth Bernstein.  In a recent piece in The Washington Post he decried the lack of civic education in our schools.  Rather than addressing this issue head-on, Obama has cut funding for the successful Teaching American History program and has defined educational reform entirely in terms of STEM disciplines.

Barack Obama is no friend of history.  If I am looking for an ally on this front I will take George W. Bush any day of the week.