A Time for Citizenship

Citizenship

It’s not really that difficult to be a citizen in times like these. Health officials are telling us to stay six feet apart, wash our hands, avoid crowds, self-quarantine, and check on our older neighbors.  If we want to get through this crisis we need to make some sacrifices. We need to think less about rights and more about obligations. We need to be citizens.

Sometimes I wonder if we really know what it means to be a citizen. In school, we took  “civics” courses that taught us things about the United States government. We learned about the importance of voting, the system of checks and balances, and some basic information about our constitutional rights. This kind of knowledge is essential and useful. But taking a course, or memorizing some facts, does not make us citizens, and citizenship is what we need in this moment.

Last night I went to the bookshelf and pulled-down my copy of historian Ralph Ketcham‘s mostly forgotten 1987 work Individualism and Public Life: A Modern Dilemma. (It currently has a 6.5 million Amazon ranking). Ketcham describes how schools often teach young people how to move beyond mere civic knowledge:

They are…further taught that their effectiveness, and even discharge of their obligation, depend on active, single-minded participation in that system: to organize, maneuver, cajole, and bargain become the means of effectiveness–and even of fulfillment of duty.

In other words, civic education too often teaches us how to engage in public life for the purpose of defending our rights or, to put it in a more negative way, our own self-interests. Under this kind of civic education, “the essential training for citizenship, Ketcham writes, “would be intricate knowledge of how the system really works and shrewd understanding of how and where to exert pressure to achieve particular objectives.”

While this rights-based approach is a vital part of citizenship–we must remain politically jealous at all times–it is not an approach to citizenship that usually helps us in times of crisis like our current coronavirus moment. It is rooted in individualism, the kind of individualism that, to quote Tocqueville, “saps the virtue of public life.” What would it take, Ketcham asks, to “enlarge the idea of citizenship as a shared, public enterprise, asking members of a body politic to explore and discuss, together, what might enrich the life of the community, and to seek together, the ideas and aspirations that would enhance and fulfill both individual and social life.”

In times like these, it is good to remember an important strain of American political thought that was dominant at the time of the founding, faded from view as American became more democratic in the early 19th century (although it depends on which historian one reads), and re-emerged at various moments of crisis (World War II, 9-11, etc.). Historians and political theorists call this strain “civic humanism” or “republicanism” or “communitarianism.” (Scholars will split hairs over the differences between these “isms,” but for the sake of this post I am going to use them synonymously). Here is Ketcham:

The office of the citizen…is best understood as the part each person in a democracy plays in the government of the community. This requires, most fundamentally, the perspective of the good ruler, that is, a disinterested regard for the welfare of the whole, rather than a narrow attention to self or special interests. That is, it requires civic virtue. The need is not that citizens necessarily devote large amounts of time to public concerns…or that they be experts in all the details of government. Rather, they must have a disinterested perspective, and must ask the proper public question, “What is good for the polity as a whole?,” not the corrupt private one. “What public policy will suit personal, special, partial needs?” Citizens must bring an attitude formed by words like “obligation,” “responsibility,” and even “duty” to their public role, rather than a perspective formed by words like “desire,” “drive,” and “interest.” The public and civic virtue required of the responsible citizen is, after all, a moral quality, a posture not quantifiable in terms of amount of time expended or amount of information accumulated.

Some have described this kind of civic humanism as utopian in nature. Civic humanism, they argue, requires a rosy view of human nature that does not seem to reflect the actual way humans have behaved in history. Indeed, as historian George Marsden once quipped (echoing Reinhold Niebuhr): “of all traditional Christian teachings the doctrine of sin or of pervasive human depravity has the most empirical verification. The modern world, rather than undercutting this doctrine, seems increasingly to confirm it.” Historians understand, perhaps better than most, the reality of the pain, suffering, injustice, anger, and vice brought by sin. They understand the tragic dimensions of life.

But this does not mean that the civic humanist tradition is not useful. Here, again, is Ketcham:

Such an approach, again, seems wildly utopian in that it asks individual citizens to recognize and restrain self-interest and instead understand and seek the general welfare. The point is not, though, that people can entirely transcend their own particular (partial, narrow) perspective, or entirely overcome the tendency toward selfishness. Those inclinations are ancient, ineradicable facts of human nature; perhaps even properly thought of as the “original sin” of self-love. No one supposes that people can wholly escape this “sin,” but there is a vase difference nonetheless between acknowledging self-interest as an indelible tendency we need to curb, and the celebration of it as a quality “to be encouraged and harnessed.” 

In the 1980s, historians debated fiercely over whether civic humanism or a rights-based Lockean liberalism informed the ideas of the American founders. Wherever one comes down on this debate, it is hard to argue that the civic humanism Ketcham describes above was not influential in the Revolution and the early years of the republic. It is also hard to argue with the fact that Americans have drawn on this tradition at various moments in our history.  Now might be another one of those moments.

What Would Jefferson Think About Trump?

jefferson-trump

Here is a taste of my op-ed at today’s Harrisburg Patriot-News:

…When Webster visited Jefferson in December, the election had not yet been decided.  Ironically, for a man who built his political career defending the rights of farmers and frontiersmen, Jefferson was no fan of Andrew Jackson. 

The Virginian worried what might happen to the country if the House of Representatives chose the military general from Tennessee.  Here is what he told Webster:

“I feel much alarmed at the prospect of seeing General Jackson President.  He is one of the most unfit men I know of for such a place.  He has had very little respect for laws and constitutions, and is, in fact, an able military chief.  His passions are terrible.  When I was President of the Senate, he was Senator; and he could never speak on account of the rashness of his feelings.  I have seen him attempt it repeatedly, and as often choke with rage.  His passions are, no doubt, cooler now; he has been much tried since I knew him, but he is a dangerous man.”

Read the entire piece here.

Jacoby: People Like Stanley Fish Have Abetted the Crisis of the Humanities

Russell Jacoby

Head over to The New Republic to read Russell Jacoby’s stinging criticism of Stanley Fish, “Stanley Fish Turned Careerism Into a Philosophy.”  I hope these guys don’t meet at a conference somewhere.  It could get ugly. 

On the other hand, Fish may be just fine with Jacoby’s critique–“different strokes for different folks.”

Though Jacoby never uses the term, he basically presents Fish as a narcissist–someone only concerned about careerism and self-interest.  For example, he reminds us of the reason why Fish opposes blind review of scholarly journal articles: “I am against blind submission,” Fish wrote, “because the fact that my name is attached to an article greatly increases its chances of getting accepted.”  Wow. 

Here is a taste of Jacoby’s piece:

The crisis of the humanities—at the very least, the declining interest in the humanities—cannot obviously be attributed to Fish and his like-minded colleagues, but they have certainly abetted the decline. The lax concept of “socially constructed” flattens out cultural distinctions, so that baseball, physics, serious novels, and sitcoms all appear as kindred inventions, all worthy of full-time study. Not only students, but also interested outsiders and literate citizens, might wonder what is the point of going into the humanities to study comic books. Fish has been unable to uphold the liberal arts as anything more than a vehicle to provide jobs for liberal-arts professors, who do what they do. After all, the liberal tradition has served him and his friends quite nicely. “I believe fully in the core curriculum,” he wrote in one of his Times columns on the crisis of the humanities, “as a device of employment for me and my fellow humanists.” Bully for him. But if this is the best defense of the liberal arts by one of its most celebrated practitioners, who needs it?

Fish has raised careerism to a worldview. In this way, he is a man for our time. His writings incarnate the cheerful, expedient self-involvement that is part and parcel of contemporary life: everyone is out for himself. Fish has burnished this credo for the professoriate (who already knew it). He seems to believe that frank self-promotion is somehow subversive in this society. Fish also likes to see himself as the perpetual bad boy of literary criticism, provoking left and right. Fish is anything but. He is much too practical to be dangerous. He closes one of his defenses of the humanities with a little vignette of an encounter with a university lobbyist. He offers to accompany the fellow to the next legislative committee investigating the university. But the lobbyist has doubts about Fish’s conduct and asks, “Will you behave?” Fish concludes his chapter, “Some people never learn.” The self-satisfaction is palpable—as is the self-mystification. The unexciting truth is that Stanley Fish has always behaved. He has always bravely defended self-interest. With friends like him, the humanities needs no enemies.

Ouch.

Wilfred McClay: The Toquevillean Moment for Higher Education

In a recent essay in The Wilson Quarterly, social critic Wilfred McClay uses Alexis de Tocqueville and Democracy in America to make sense of the current changes in American higher education.

First, McClay lays out the challenges faced by higher education today:

To say that we are living through a time of momentous change, and now stand on the threshold of a future we could barely have imagined a quarter-century ago, may seem merely to restate the blazingly obvious. But it is no less true, and no less worrisome, for being so. Uncertainties about the fiscal soundness of sovereign governments and the stability of basic political, economic, and financial institutions, not to mention the fundamental solvency of countless American families, are rippling through all facets of the nation’s life. Those of us in the field of higher education find these new circumstances particularly unsettling. Our once-buffered corner of the world seems to have lost control of its boundaries and lost sight of its proper ends, and stands accused of having become at once unaffordable and irrelevant except as a credential mill for the many and a certification of social rank for the few. And despite all the wonderful possibilities that beckon from the sunlit uplands of technological progress, the digital revolution that is upon us threatens not only to disrupt the economic model of higher education but to undermine the very qualities of mind that are the university’s reason for being. There is a sense that events and processes are careening out of control, and that the great bubble that has so far contained us is now in the process of bursting.

Then he introduces us to Tocqueville’s understanding of liberal education:

But more than anything else, Tocqueville praised Americans for their embrace of the principle of self-interest rightly understood. It was a foregone conclusion, in his view, that self-interest had replaced virtue as the chief force driving human action. To tell an American to do virtuous things for virtue’s sake, or at the authoritative direction of priests, prelates, or princes, was futile. But the same request would readily be granted if real benefits could be shown to flow from it. The challenge of moral philosophy in such an environment was to demonstrate how “private interest and public interest meet and amalgamate,” and how one’s devotion to the general good could also promote one’s personal advantage. Belief in that conjunction—that one could do well by doing good—was exactly what was meant by the “right understanding” of self-interest.

Hence, it was imperative to educate democratic citizens in this understanding, to teach them how to reason their own way to acceptance of the greater good. The American example made Tocqueville hopeful that the modern principle of self-interest could be so channeled, hedged about, habituated, and clothed as to produce public order and public good, even in the absence of “aristocratic” sources of authority. But it would not happen of its own accord.

“Enlighten them, therefore, at any price.” Or, as another translation expresses it, “Educate them, then.” Whatever else we may believe about the applicability of Tocqueville’s ideas to the present day, we can be in no doubt that he was right in his emphasis upon education. But not just any kind of education.  He was talking about what we call liberal education, in the strictest sense of the term, an education that makes men and women capable of the exercise of liberty, and equips them for the task of rational self-governance. And the future of that ideal of education is today very much in doubt.

And finally, he uses Tocqueville to defend the traditional liberal arts:

Wilfred McClay

So we must be Tocquevillean. That means we should not be too quick to discard an older model of what higher education is about, a model that the conventional four-year residential liberal-arts college, whatever its failures and its exorbitant costs, has been preeminent in championing. And that is the model of a physical community built around a great shared enterprise: the serious and careful reading and discussion of classic literary, philosophical, historical, and scientific texts. 

What we may need, however, is to be more rigorous in thinking through what we want from such a model of education, and what we can readily dispense with. Perhaps we do not need college to be what it all too often has become: an extended Wanderjahre of post-adolescent entertainment and experimentation, played out in the soft, protected environment of idyllic, leafy campuses, less a rite du passage than a retreat to a very expensive place where one can defer the responsibilities of adult life. 

At the very least, such an education ought to help us resist the uncritical embrace of technological innovation, and equip us to challenge it constructively and thoughtfully—and selectively. There is, for example, no product of formal education more important than the cultivation of reflection, of solitary concentration, and of sustained, patient, and disciplined attention—habits that an overwired and hyperconnected way of life is making more and more difficult to put into practice. If we find it increasingly difficult to compose our fragmented and disjointed browsings into coherent accounts, let alone larger and deeper structures of meaning, that fact represents a colossal failure of our educations to give us the tools we need to make sense of our lives. Colleges and universities should be the last institutions to succumb to this tendency. They should resist it with all their might, because that is precisely what they are there for.

Read the entire piece.