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Log in to Witsby: ASCD’s Next-Generation Professional Learning and Credentialing Platform
February 1, 1997
Vol. 54
No. 5

The Legacy of Public Work: Educating for Citizenship

Education involving public work experience—like the Public Achievement initiative—is a key to civic participation.

If young people are to develop the conviction that the country is theirs to shape and reshape, we need to retrieve an older view of citizenship as involving "public work." Public work is work by a mix of people whose efforts result in products of lasting importance to our communities and society. When we help to build something, we experience it as ours. We gain authority and confidence to act. We have motivation to learn what we need to learn. If we are to provide opportunities for young people to do public work, however, we must make major changes in our attitudes toward education and, perhaps more important, toward democracy.
In virtually every community, some young people are already doing public work. Consider, for example, the Gateway Project in Minneapolis. Gateway is a public park located in a low-income, racially mixed, high-crime neighborhood. Young people from the area redesigned a space that was once a center of violent and disruptive activity. After local residents won a long battle to rid the corner of a liquor store, the youngsters began their multiyear park project. At first, their temporary walls adorned with children's murals provided the only evidence that something was changing. Today, Gateway's lush park full of people provides a daily reminder of how young people can effect positive change.
Projects like Gateway once provided the foundation for civic education. They incorporated the progressive educational approaches of John Dewey, Jane Addams, Walter Page, Booker T. Washington, and many others. During the Great Depression, for example, the Civilian Conservation Corps served as a classroom for civic education on a vast scale. More than three million young men planted trees, built parks, countered soil erosion, and completed other public work projects. In the process they developed a vivid sense that they were "building the commonwealth" of the nation. Veterans of the Conservation Corps have said that their experiences shaped their attitudes toward work for the rest of their lives and helped develop their sense of citizenship and civic responsibility.
After World War II, Lewis Mumford (1951) eloquently argued for a "public work corps" that would involve all American youth. Unfortunately, the corps did not take shape, and only a —al number of such programs exist today.

Civic Action, Not Consumer Mentality

Critics of American society point to a number of problems today, ranging from declining levels of voter participation and public apathy toward elections to decreasing interest in volunteer activities and community groups. Young people, especially, are targets of concern. Studies have documented the younger generation's apparent disinterest in public affairs and lack of knowledge about our political system.
We believe that the critics have focused their attention on the wrong questions, leading them to arrive at the wrong answers. Often, they ask, "What do young people (and others) lack in the way of civic knowledge or civic values?" The more fundamental question should be about democracy: "Are we guiding young people to help build our democracy?"
Increasingly, the dynamics of the marketplace dominates our society. Political campaigns have become like ad campaigns, with political conventions serving as backdrops. We have redefined government itself in terms of customer service. We view citizens as consumers, rather than producers, of democracy.
And, our education system mirrors marketplace democracy. Teachers who once took on leadership roles in their communities often pay little attention to the cultures and communities of their students. Schools once viewed as civic centers are no longer connected to the neighborhoods they serve. Academic disciplines and career preparation programs dominate the curriculum. We justify fashionable proposals such as school vouchers with a marketplace language that casts parents in the role of consumers who are shopping for the best buy. This must change. If we are to return to a work-centered perspective, we must create a broad movement for civic education that includes a return to the commonwealth view of democracy.

Figure 1. Three Approaches to Civic Education

The Legacy of Public Work: Educating for Citizenship - table

Civics Approach

Community Approach

Commonwealth Approach

GoalsDistribution of goods and servicesCommunity, consensus, caring relationshipsCreation of public goods of lasting value, building the commonwealth
Definition of CitizenVoter, client, taxpayer, customerCommunity member, volunteerProducer, creator of things of public worth
School leaders (principals, administrators)Make decisions, articulate vision, mobilize resourcesFacilitate, hear all points of view, build communityCall people to work, tap new energy and spirit, frame large tasks, provide tools for public work
Instructional FocusGovernment focus—how a bill becomes a law; separation of powers; elections; traditional civics; youth in governmentCultivation of values of caring, responsibility, volunteerism, service learningSkills and attitudes for public work—working with others on common works; appreciation of public spaces, public art, libraries, environment
AssessmentMeasurement of civic knowledgeAttention to civic values like responsibility and concern for others What do students and schools produce? What civic capacities are developed? What new learning resources are tapped? How are lessons institutionalized?

Understanding the Legacy

Reformers who touted public work and practical problem solving earlier in the century believed that democracy was the common work of all. They sought to adapt older notions of commonwealth democracy to the emerging world of large cities, factories, new immigrant populations, and modern science. Through the 1940s, politicians as diverse as Republican Theodore Roosevelt and Floyd B. Olson, the Farmer Labor Party governor of Minnesota, used the word commonwealth, melding social dimensions of wealth with popular government.
Commonwealth democracy entailed far more than the franchise. It meant a "general advance" of the whole, grounded in the creative, productive activity of the common people who built the country. For reformer Jane Addams, founder of the Hull House settlement in Chicago, democracy involved a "great moral effort of getting the mass to express itself, and of adding this mass energy and wisdom to the community as a whole" (1907). Addams believed that middle class experts and educators who sought to fix the people from the outside posed a threat to democracy. They drained politics and education alike of the energy that came out of the cultural resources and everyday experiences of communities.
Addams was a sharp critic of separating education from the experience of work and the lives of working people. "There is a pitiful failure to recognize the situation in which the majority of working people are placed," Addams argued. "[There is] a tendency to ignore their real experiences and needs and, most stupid of all, we leave quite untouched affections and memories which would afford a tremendous dynamic if they were utilized."
Addams insisted that the true purpose of education was to "free the powers of each man and connect him with the rest of life." In this way of thinking, teachers' work was itself public work. It had a strong civic aspect aimed at unleashing and enhancing the productive capacities of ordinary people to contribute not only to their welfare but also to the betterment of society, what she called "the commonweal." She saw productive activity as an elemental human need as real as any other. "The sense of uselessness is the severest shock which the human system can sustain," she wrote in Twenty Years at Hull House (Addams 1938). "If persistently sustained, it results in atrophy of function."
In rural areas, similar views informed the Country Life Movement of the early 20th century. For instance, Liberty Hyde Bailey, dean of the College of Agriculture at Cornell University and the most important philosopher of the cooperative extension movement, argued that rural schools needed to come alive with community spirit through public work. "We must outgrow the sit-still and keep-still method of school work," said Bailey. "I want to see the children put to work with tools and soils and plants and problems." Like John Dewey, Bailey (1908) believed "a child does not learn much when he is silent and inactive. Out of this work will grow the necessity of learning to read and figure and draw."
Bailey held that specialized subject matter, while bringing potential benefits, would destroy democratic rural life unless education cultivated students' interests in the activities of the whole community. "The farmer is not only a producer of commodities," he argued. "He is a citizen, a member of the commonwealth [and should] concern himself not alone with technical farming but also with all the affairs that make up an agricultural community," from roads and rural architecture to labor organizations and schools (Bailey 1904).
The Center for Democracy and Citizenship, working with the College of St. Catherine and Neighborhood House, a settlement on the West Side of St. Paul, Minnesota, has sought to revive the approach of earlier educators such as Addams and Bailey. We are working in partnership with Hmong and Latino immigrants at the Jane Addams School. The school provides a place for these new arrivals to learn and to contribute the energy and insight that immigrant groups can bring to renewing democracy.
We meet each night in learning circles that involve Hmong and Spanish-speaking residents of all ages, along with college students, college faculty members, and teachers from the local school district. Discussions focus on topics such as language acquisition, work, workers' rights, and citizenship. The effort draws on community resources of many kinds. Our experience with this project, as well as our knowledge of other efforts across the nation, has convinced us that it is possible to revive a public work approach to education for democracy.

Helping Young People Solve Public Problems

For the last six years, the Center for Democracy and Citizenship has sought to develop a work-centered approach to civic learning. Public Achievement, an initiative spearheaded in 1990 by the center, Minnesota 4-H club, and St. Paul Mayor Jim Scheibel, is one vehicle we have used to experiment with this work-centered approach. We began by holding forums with several hundred young people from a variety of backgrounds and settings. We explored questions of how young people might gain the skills and confidence they need to help solve public problems.
During the past seven years, more than 1,000 young people ages 8-18 have participated in many different kinds of public work projects. Teams of young people have worked to make lasting contributions to their communities. In the process, they have learned about citizenship and about working together to make a difference. Young adult coaches help create, maintain, and support the team projects. These coaches may be college students, adult leaders of local churches or youth institutions, neighborhood leaders, or parents.
Public Achievement stresses public action and cooperation with those who may be very different from one another. Youngsters work on concrete issues of mutual concern. They learn what they can achieve through serious public work. For example, a team of teen mothers organized a high school day-care service. A group of middle school students worked for three years to create a community playground. A group of 7th grade girls created a curriculum that focused on dealing with issues like racial prejudice and sexual harassment.
As Public Achievement has evolved, we have come to stress that students must understand the cultures of their schools or neighborhoods. We have also increasingly highlighted the idea of public contribution: what it is that students actually create of public value and how civic products can gain visibility. Students involved in projects like building the playground report that they have learned a tremendous amount about how to work together as a team, how to deal with different kinds of people, and how to feel more confident. One teacher says the trick is to guide instead of lead. "Adults feel like they have to jump in and fix everything," he explained. "I have developed a new appreciation and respect for my students as I have watched them identify issues, devise strategies to deal with them, and evaluate their own progress."
Other adults report major changes in their own work as well. "I felt that we needed to have ways to take kids more seriously. That's why I was interested in Public Achievement," explains Dennis Donovan, principal of St. Bernard's Catholic School in St. Paul. For the past three years, most students at St. Bernard's have been involved in Public Achievement projects. "We thought that learning citizenship skills would influence relations in school, the curriculum, and the way we taught," says Donovan. "It has. Many kids are much better at expressing their interests and negotiating with teachers. Teachers have begun to base their teaching more directly on what kids are interested in."
Regardless of what we call it, education involving public work experience is a key to successful civic education. Deborah Meier, founder of the Central Park East school complex in New York's East Harlem area, argues that "Teaching should serve the broadest purposes like democracy and citizenship. It has to convey that learning matters. It has to engage intellectual capacities.
"For people to stay at the table, in the face of all the arguments and conflicts, requires important work in which all have a strong stake," Meier observes. The Central Park schools pose as their core questions, "Who cares?" and "Why does it matter?" Connecting individual concerns and actions to questions about what students are doing that is significant teaches them to think differently about the meaning of their work.
Such experiences furnish important examples, but they also go against entrenched patterns of instruction. Most dramatically, these examples challenge the concept of marketplace democracy. A movement that educates for democracy through public work must do much more than reinvigorate civic education. It must help renew democracy itself. Only when we recognize that understanding democracy comes mainly from doing democracy will we recall that democracy cannot be "consumed." To flourish, each new generation must create democracy anew.

Addams, J. (1907). Democracy and Social Ethics. New York: Macmillan.

Addams, J. (1938). Twenty Years at Hull-House. New York: Macmillan.

Bailey, L. (1908). The State and the Farmer. New York: Macmillan.

Bailey, L. (1904). Cornell Nature Study Leaflets #1. Albany, N.Y.: Lyon Co.

Mumford, L. (1951). The Conduct of Life. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Co.

End Notes

1 See H. Boyte and N. N. Kari, Building America: The Democratic Promise of Public Work (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1996). This article draws on that publication, and we are grateful to Nan Kari for her contributions to the argument presented here.

2 Interview with Dennis Donovan, August 30, 1995.

3 Interview with Deborah Meier, August 14, 1995. See also D. Meier, (1995), The Power of Their Ideas, (Boston: Beacon Press).

Harry C. Boyte has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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