The Pope and Civic Studies

In Laudato Si', the climate encyclical, Pope Francis challenges a narrow view of science and technology called positivism which holds that sound knowledge involves standing "outside" the world. In recent years, I have been involved in a parallel effort called "civic studies."

Positivist philosophers argue that a particular view of science, resting on the discovery of permanent, atemporal standards of rationality that can be found and then applied, forms the basis for sound knowledge. Scientific method is purported to be pure, its aim is to find abstract, universal truths "out there" that can be brought back to enlighten the masses, like the philosopher king returning to Plato's cave. Positivism assumes the detached, rational observer as the highest judge of truth and the most effective problem solver.

Even though it has long been challenged philosophically, as I argued in an essay some years ago in Academe, positivism continues to structure much of higher education's research, our disciplines, our teaching, and our institutions. It is like a genie that academia let loose long ago, now lurking below the surface and threatening our destruction.

Faculty members and other educators often undergo an insidious socialization, especially in graduate school, learning a stance of ironic detachment from our fellow citizens, seeing ourselves outside what the settlement house leader Jane Addams called "the common lot." The image of the detached and objective scholar and teacher leads to the expert stance of "fixing problems," "discovering truths," and "dispensing knowledge."

In his educational manifesto, The Courage to Teach, Parker Palmer has vividly described the human cost. "This mode...portrays truth as something we can achieve only by disconnecting ourselves, physically and emotionally, from the thing we want to know...The subjective self is the enemy most to be feared--a Pandora's box of opinion, bias, and ignorance that will distort our knowledge once the lid flies off."

In 2007 a group of us including Stephen Elkin, Peter Levine, Jane Mansbridge, Elinor Ostrom, Rogers Smith, Karol Soltan, and myself brought together by the journal of engaged political theory, The Good Society, launched civic studies as an interdisciplinary field. Civic studies emphasizes humans as agents and citizens as co-creators of communities at different scales. Tufts University's Tisch School of Citizenship is a host for many of our materials, including the framing statement and the curriculum for the Summer Institute of Civic Studies, each year organized by Levine and Soltan.

In 2009 Ostrom won the Nobel Prize in Economics for the work she and her husband Vincent, working with an international group of researchers, had done on citizen-centered governance of common pool resources like irrigation systems, forests, and fisheries.

Civic studies is a movement to challenge detachment. We seek to reintegrate what the modern world and theories of knowledge based on the stance of being "outside the world" have split apart.

In particular civic studies emphasizes that we all are citizens. As Levine puts it in his essay "The Case for Civic Studies," "scholars [are] citizens, engaged with others in creating [our] worlds...accountable for the actual results of their thoughts and not just the ideas themselves."

Levine points to far-ranging implications for education and higher education. He argues that it is a mistake to make sharp distinctions between disciplines based on "facts," such as natural and social sciences, disciplines based on "values," such as the humanities, and disciplines based on strategies for action, such as the professions. All, from a civic studies perspective, should aim at improving our capacities to act collectively, effectively, and ethically.

We draw on relational strands of science, as well as other fields. Thus Barbara McClintock, the Nobel Prize winning biologist who laid foundations for modern genetics, based her method on positing the interdependent and relational qualities of all living organisms. For McClintock, her own relationship to the object of study was as important as the relationship genes had with each other. "Over and over again, she tells us one must have the time to look, the patience to 'hear what the material has to say to you,' the openness to 'let it come to you," said her biographer Evelyn Fox Keller. "Above all, one must have 'a feeling for the organism.'"

A similar science also is found in experimental psychology that emphasizes humans as unique, relational agents of their development even in early childhood. Infants create ideas drawing from diverse sources, as they seek and learn to shape their environments. This science points toward an open, dynamic concept of contexts and of the humans who make them.

The late Esther Thelen pioneered in such science. Thelen's science was based on a relational, interactive, emergent understanding of complex systems and how to theorize them. She challenged views of infants as passing through predetermined "stages" of development. Thelen argued instead that infants are experimental, self-realizing agents, profoundly relational and interactive with their contexts.

Drawing on many of her experiments, a group of former students and colleagues concluded that infants are constantly assembling holistic patterns, such as reaching or walking, out of many elements, including testing, perceiving, feedback, and experimenting with ideas. "[An] integration of body and mind is a fundamental characteristic of all goal-directed activities," they argued. "Thought is always grounded in perception and action."

Laudato Si' and the civic studies movement both seek a reintegration of body and mind.

We both also seek to reconnect educators and citizenship.