Place-Based Reflection as a Foundation for Civic Engagement
By Sharon Meagher, professor of philosophy, chair of the Department of Latin American Studies and Women’s Studies, and director of Women’s Studies, University of Scranton
Scranton, Pennsylvania. “Downtown Spring I” by Susan Scranton Dawson, copyright 2007. Reprinted with permission.
On the first day of my course Philosophy and the City, I invite students to introduce themselves and share which cities they like and dislike, and why. This exercise has value for several reasons. Pragmatically, it helps me know which cities I might most fruitfully draw on for examples as the course progresses. Pedagogically, it encourages students to think of themselves as capable of philosophical arguments, and to practice making arguments that are more than assertions of preference. I help students do this by pointing out that Western philosophers have been making arguments about cities since philosophy originated in ancient Athens, and that students should seek those philosophers’ aid in strengthening and refining their own views.
But students’ answers also tell me much about their understandings of cities and attitudes toward them. Many of my students, who mostly hail from suburbs and small towns, struggle to find anything positive to say about any city. When they do identify cities they like, it is usually because “there’s lots to do.” Most students perceive cities as places to visit for entertainment—which is no surprise, as many cities are making themselves over to appeal to the suburban middle class, constructing professional sports stadiums, shopping centers, and entertainment districts that are sanitized of other urban realities. Suburban visitors are often grateful for that, because they perceive cities in harsh terms: as places of danger, poverty, and otherness. Only rarely have students identified Scranton, where they study and where most live during the school year, as a city about which they have any views at all.
The introductory exercise therefore opens students to the course’s two primary objectives. First, the course aims to demonstrate the value and relevance of philosophy in shaping our sense of self and community, including our civic responsibilities. While all philosophy courses arguably contribute to students’ civic development by fostering critical thinking and communication skills and introducing students to key concepts in Western culture, this course aims to make more explicit connections between philosophy and public life. Second, the course encourages students to reflect on where they are and how they interact (or fail to act) with the place and its people.
Bringing the City into the Philosophy Classroom
The course’s second objective is not addressed in most curricula, with the possible exception of those that include service-learning pedagogy. Indeed, service learning forces students to interact with people in places beyond the academy’s walls. Yet to the extent that civic engagement occurs in and with our cities, we educators must address the fact that many students have already absorbed decidedly anti-urban attitudes by the time they do community-based learning or work. These attitudes fuel student alienation and disengagement, and a service-learning experience alone is unlikely to reverse them.
While some of the current literature on civic engagement addresses issues that might arise from students’ attitudes towards volunteerism (see, for example, McCarthy and Tucker 1999; Andolina et al. 2003), none of it attends to anti-urban attitudes. These attitudes are rooted in the United States’ legacy of anti-urban theory, which extends at least as far back as Thomas Jefferson and has deeply affected public policy (White and White 1962). Anti-urban philosophies encourage victim-blaming, construct cities as moral evils in themselves, and fuel discourses that are often tied to racism, class-based prejudices, or both. These discourses discourage civic engagement by suggesting that urban problems are intractable or the fault of those most victimized by them. If we believe such arguments, then why should we, our students, or other citizens try to make change?
It is crucial that we help students examine their ethical views about urban places if we are to have a positive impact on their capacity and motivation for civic engagement. A course in urban philosophy can play a central role in college and university civic engagement programs by confronting and critically analyzing the philosophical history of anti-urban views and offering alternative philosophical perspectives. As students discover a long tradition of thinking about not only what cities are but also what they should be, they can come to realize the value of imagining a better city and the roles they might play in working to create such places. Legitimate critique motivates engagement by identifying not only problems but potential solutions, countering the sense that nothing can be done. Thus the philosophical study of cities helps uncover the promise embedded (and sometimes buried) in city life that we can work to actualize.
Taking Philosophy into the City
I have taught a range of courses focused on philosophy and the city, including an undergraduate first-year seminar, an intermediate philosophy elective, and a community-based course for working adults. I am currently team-teaching an interdisciplinary honors seminar on the city and theater that critically examines and explores what Plato termed “the old quarrel” between philosophy and poetry, where theater and philosophy have competed for authority in shaping our understanding of cities and citizenship. While readings and assignments vary depending on the particular course, I conduct each course as a small city itself, with assignments that require students to specialize in a particular reading or urban problem. This pedagogical approach encourages students to recognize the value of specialization and interdependence and to trust the processes of collaborative learning so essential to civic life.
Following Daniel Kemmis, I believe that the humanities disciplines become meaningful as they are “sought in and brought to bear on the real life of the real city” (1995, 59). In every course, I therefore include what I call “philosophical walking tours” that take students into the city to observe and reflect. In my current course on the city and theater, we require students to develop performance pieces (to be staged on a public green) that address or highlight an urban issue revealed to them by their philosophical readings and their interactions with the city and its citizens.
While these exercises focus on the immediate context of Scranton, course assignments also encourage students to connect the local and the global. Using readings and internet-based resources, students explore case studies on topics like “Urban Identity and Diversity,” mentally mapping trends, connections, common issues, and differences across locales. Course resources, including sample syllabi and guidelines for developing walking tours, can be found on my website, www.philosophyandthecity.org.
Student comments suggest that course objectives are being achieved. Recent responses to the student survey question “What is the most important thing you learned from the class?” included the following:
- “what it truly means to be a citizen, as opposed to just being a taxpayer”
- “diversity is important to the city, but at the same time there are needs for common goals”
- “to look more closely at the city around me”
These three remarks sum up what I hope all courses aimed at promoting civic engagement do: (1) teach students to become lifelong learners who understand the places and communities where they live; (2) help students understand the importance of both diversity and shared concerns for justice in civic life; (3) empower students to think of themselves as citizens so they can exercise their civic as well as economic responsibilities.
Andolina, Molly W., Krista Jenkins, Cliff Zukin, and Scott Keeter. 2003. “Habits from Home, Lessons from School: Influences on Youth Civic Engagement.” Political Science and Politics 36, 275–80.
Kemmis, Daniel. 1995. The Good City and the Good Life. Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin.
McCarthy, Anne M., and Mary L. Tucker. 1999. “Student Attitudes Toward Service-Learning: Implications for Implementation.” Journal of Management Education 23 (October): 554–73.
White, Morton, and Lucia White. 1962. The Intellectual Versus the City. New York and Toronto: Mentor Books (New American Library).