The Citizen Myth

 Originally Appeared in: Transition: 60 | Published: 1993

Virile Greeks mill about the marketplace readying the arguments that will shape the destiny of their polis. Florentine gentlemen renew their efforts at self government while puzzling over the ancient authority of Aristotle and Cicero and reading divine revelation and grace in Charles VIII’s military expedition to Italy. Farmers, tradesmen, and merchants gather in New England town meetings to levy taxes and repair local roads. Stylish slaveowners and home spun patriots rub elbows, contemplating themselves as equals, as they sign their names to a Declaration of Independence, a Preamble to the Constitution, or a Bill of Rights. 

Such are the primal scenes of democratic citizenship that dot the history of Western political thought. Do they con vey a meaningful legacy to the democratic imagination? Or are they simple anachronisms, silly or pernicious de pending on the occasions in which they are evoked? 

Does the exclusion from citizenship -of women, of slaves, servants, workers, of strangers and aliens-which was built into each of these fabled polities indelibly strain the very values and institutions they embodied? Can the tradition of civic republicanism or civic humanism really speak to the problems of democracy in an era where the demos is multiracial, multilingual, multicultural? 

Citizenship, strongly conceived, is a resurgent ideal among many contemporary political theorists and social critics. Benjamin R. Barber, author of Strong Democracy, sets out in An Aristocracy of Everyone to establish the intellectual foundations for a renewal of civic education. The book culminates in a call for schools and universities to integrate mandatory community service into the curriculum. Forcefully rejecting the idea that community service should give the privileged a way to help the underprivileged or merely provide poorer students a means of working off their loans, Barber outlines a program geared to help all students “learn the meaning of social interdependence and become empowered through acquiring the democratic arts.” 

Students’ projects of community service would be integrated into courses of study, so that the critical discussion of political traditions and social institutions could go hand in hand with the practical involvement in the community. Barber also suggests that students should have a far greater role in the governance of educational institutions themselves.
The goal is to counteract the tendency of modern democracies to weaken civic ideals of responsibility and self-government. American democracy has had to adapt itself to capitalism and to universal suffrage. Capitalism centers self-fulfillment and freedom in the private pursuit of economic gain rather than in the public pursuit of the common good. Thus began what Richard Sennett called The Fall of Public Man. Second, as the franchise was extended, the diversity and sheer mass of the citizenry changed the face of citizenship itself. Barber laments how the ideal of a life devoted to communal debate and decision has shrunk down to the reality of occasional trips to the voting booth.

The civic ideal, Barber argues, is not dead. It remains vital to what he calls the American story, that is, the founding principles of American democracy and their persistence and power throughout the nation’s history. An education to citizenship should give young people a training in civic responsibility, and it should inculcate what it means to be an American. Being an American is anchored in “common rights rather than common identity.” Barber is acutely aware that multiculturalism, as a fact of American society and as an emergent ideology and pedagogy, is in tension with the goal of educating the universal citizen. And it is in grappling with multiculturalism and democracy that his project unravels….

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