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The Civic Empowerment Gap, Universal Values, and Working in or out of a System

kdiamant's picture

At a general, my-personal-values level, I think that I believe in Levinson’s point that the “civic empowerment gap” is a big issue. In a country where we put democracy on a pedestal and where the structures, policies, etc. of our country are decided by a so-called democratic process, it really doesn’t work if huge groups of people simply aren’t being heard.

In light of the Boler chapter on teaching socio-emotional skills and subsequent class discussion about the problems with teaching “universal” values and skills, however, I found this chapter more troubling and confusing. I think that there is a lot of potential for undermining the lived experiences of students, for undermining the action that they do take in their lives, and teaching them to incorporate themselves and work within a structure that is actually really detrimental to them (and is, in fact, a reason why they are less civically engaged).

Levinson says, about a particular perspective of her students, “I find it breathtaking in its combination of utter ignorance and absolute cynicism” (28). While she recognizes later that their interpretations might make sense, given their situations (31), it was hard for me to read this because I didn’t see her truly acknowledge the knowledge, strength, and action of her students, especially in ways outside of the system. Even she recognizes that she could be “placing certain groups at the “bottom” of a civic empowerment gap precisely because I discount forms of civic engagement in which they are particularly involved” (46). While she says that she is not trying to imply a deficit here, I think that this is a dangerous hole to possibly fall into.

I am still, personally, unsure—if a system is inherently really messed up and damaging to a lot of people, is it the best solution  to work within the system to change what we can that way? I think it’s possible that Levinson has more faith in an ideal system of democracy than I do, but, especially her solution of teaching students to be engaged brought up a tension for me between teaching and changing people to fit and work within the system, as opposed to changing the system so that it works for them as they are. At the very least, I think a dialogue with them, one that really honors their perspectives as valuable, about their current modes of action, values, and relation to the democratic system is probably necessary. 


Hummingbird's picture

Levinson in light of Shore and Freire

I appreciate that you read this in light of the Boler, because I felt uneasy while reading Levinson and couldn't quite place it. I think your critique of Levinson really captures why. 

I do think that we can "believe" Levinson by reading some of what she finds troubling in light of Shore and Freire regarding dialogue –– that marginalized people in the democratic system don't feel heard, or don't feel in dialogue with those in positions of power and authority. I think of the US as a kind of large lecture hall. Those who can voice opinions and thoughts in town hall meetings have a special (potentially classed...?) privilege. Freire says, "Knowing is a social event with nevertheless an individual dimension," (99) and Shore responds, "I'd add that speaking either confirms or disconfirms the social relations of the people who engage in such communication" (99). If marginalized people are not in dialogue with the government, their marginalization is reproduced as a kind of silencing (by the outside world, and internally). 

Just some thoughts...