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Reimagining Civic Participation Through the Science of Association

By Peter Levine, Professor and Associate Dean in Tufts University’s Jonathan Tisch College of Civic Life

Explore Part 5 of our series, “Voices in Social Studies” where educators and thought leaders share the latest in social studies teaching and learning. Read part 1, part 2, part 3 and part 4.

America’s constitutional democracy depends on us — the people — to organize ourselves in groups of all sizes and for many purposes. Voluntary associations address community problems, they make it possible to limit the scope of government, and they empower people to express their diverse beliefs and passions. Freedom of association is both a constitutional right and a pillar of American society.

Unfortunately, human beings do not automatically know how to associate well. Challenges arise that lack obvious solutions. How can we resolve disagreements so that disappointed participants don’t quit or just drift away? What is the best response when some members shirk their fair share of the work? What is an effective way to prevent leaders from dominating a group or even stealing its assets? How should an association communicate its purpose and values to busy outsiders?

The Science of Association

Answers to these questions (and many others) constitute what Alexis de Tocqueville called “the science of association.” Visiting the United States in 1831, he credited the success of our young republic to the people’s skill at this “mother science of a democracy.” He observed that Americans had perfected this “science” better than any other nation and had used it for the most purposes.

The traditional way to learn how to associate was to join functioning groups and watch how they worked. In The Upswing (2020), Robert D. Putnam and Shaylyn Romney Garrett show that associational life grew and strengthened from about 1890 until about 1960 as Americans developed the science of association to unprecedented levels.

But then rates of membership shrank just as steeply. Today, most citizens do not feel they associate much at all. Just over one in four Americans report that they belong to even one group that has responsible leaders and in which they can actively participate. (Of these groups, religious congregations are the most common; online groups are also fairly frequent.)

When functioning groups are scarce and fragile, we cannot count on them to teach a younger generation to participate. However, schools can play a role in reversing this decline.

Find Opportunities to Explore Common Issues

First, teachers and other adult educators can help students to learn from experiences in and around schools. Examples range from “circle time” in a kindergarten classroom to a high school’s student government. These are opportunities to discuss common issues and problems with peers and to make common decisions. Sooner or later, practically any club or team will encounter problems like disagreement, unequal commitment, and scarce resources that are worth learning to solve.

Schools should provide rich arrays of voluntary associations in which students are responsible for addressing the inevitable challenges of working together. Adults who belong to functioning groups of their own can also help by making sure that children have chances to join — or at least observe — these organizations.

Explore the new 6–12 U.S. and World History programs:

🌏 Inspire students to experience history through multiple lenses and inquiry as they learn to practice civil discourse on their way to becoming future-ready citizens.

Investigate the Themes Around Civic Participation

Meanwhile, in the classroom, students can study Tocqueville’s “science of association.” The Educating for American Democracy Roadmap is a new effort to strengthen civics and history education. (I was one of the Principal Investigators on this project.) It suggests that just seven big Themes can organize history and civic education from kindergarten through twelfth grade.

The first of these Themes is “Civic Participation.” The Roadmap suggests how to study this Theme historically. Students can investigate how Americans have “come together in groups, made decisions, and affected their communities, the country, and the world.” After all, Americans have always formed groups, from the churches and town meetings of colonial New England to abolitionist societies before the Civil War, and on to Grange Halls, labor unions, and today’s neighborhood email lists. The Roadmap asks, “How can that history inform our civic participation today?” There is no reason to reinvent the entire science of association when we can learn from our predecessors’ hard-won experience.

Promote the Principles and Values Relevant to Association

Meanwhile, in civics, students can learn principles and values relevant to association. Already in grades K-2, they can investigate how to help change a group decision that they disagree with. By high school, they can investigate how “new media and digital technology [have] changed civil society.” “Civil disagreement,” “toleration of differing views,” and “civic friendship” are among the values that the Roadmap asks high school students to explore and debate.

I have cited some examples of “driving questions” from the Civic Participation theme of the Roadmap. Studying such topics in the classroom can complement actual experience with associations inside and beyond the school. By combining hands-on experience, historical examples, and general principles, young people will learn to work together voluntarily, which is the basis of our constitutional democracy.

Explore the new 6–12 U.S. and World History programs:

🌏 Inspire students to experience history through multiple lenses and inquiry as they learn to practice civil discourse on their way to becoming future-ready citizens.

Works cited

de Tocqueville, Alexis, Democracy in America, pp. 489–92 edited and translated by Harvey C. Mansfield and Delba Winthrop (University of Chicago Pres, 2000)

Putnam, Robert D and Shaylyn Romney Garrett, The Upswing: How America Came Together a Century Ago and How We Can Do It Again. Simon & Schuster, 2020.

Atwell, Matthew N., John Bridgeland, and Peter Levine. “Civic deserts: America’s civic health challenge.” National Conference on Citizenship. Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life, Tufts University, 2017, p. 21

Peter Levine is a professor and associate dean in Tufts University’s Jonathan Tisch College of Civic Life. He formerly directed CIRCLE (https://circle.tufts.edu/) and chaired the civics team for the C3 (College, Career, and Civic Life) Framework. You can read more of his work here.

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