Reinventing Citizenship as Public Work: Citizen-Centered Democracy and the Empowerment Gap



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In recent years, calls for citizenship education have multiplied in response to widespread lack of civic and political knowledge and the degradation of public culture. Approaches to educating citizens come chiefly in two forms: improving civics education and increasing service and volunteerism. In this study for the Kettering Foundation, Harry Boyte examines how these two approaches fail to recognize the power of citizens in work and the workplace.

Civic education focuses on ignorance about government. Knowledge of government is useful when used by citizens and citizen workers who are the central actors of democracy. The problem, says Boyte, is that the underlying paradigm of citizenship (voting) and democracy (government-centered) in civics does little to address powerlessness.

Community organizers and communitarian and civil society theorists focus on the importance of associational life. However, Boyte finds, the concept of civil society generally consigns citizenship and civic action to the “voluntary sector.” Thus, associative democracy takes substantial institutional transformation off the map, ruling out the possibility of reinvigorating public cultures and purposes and work practices of institutions such as higher education, professional systems, businesses, and government.

Boyte makes the argument that work and workplaces need to be brought in as sites of citizenship. A public work approach to organizing differs, in significant respects, from conventional liberal and communitarian approaches to civic engagement. Public work avoids exhortations about what teachers, students, staff, or institutions should do. Rather, public work connects individual and institutional interests to citizenship and the public good by inviting people to “make work more public,” more interactive, collaborative, visible, and filled with public purposes.

Harry C. Boyte is founder and codirector of the Center for Democracy and Citizenship based at Augsburg College and a senior fellow at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey Institute.

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Higher Education
Theory and Practice

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