Schwartz: Leadership and civic disengagement

  • Joel SchwartzThe professor has made the study of civic engagement a passion.

    Joel Schwartz

“Leadership” and “service”: When it comes to civic engagement, Joel Schwartz wants to change the subject. A preoccupation with those models presupposes and perpetuates the civic disengagement that marks contemporary American society, he believes. The focus, he said, should be on building publics.

Schwartz, dean of interdisciplinary studies at the College, professor of government and director of the Charles Center, mapped out his thinking in a video lecture produced by the College’s Office of University Relations in partnership with the Swem Media Center. In it, he identified civic disengagement as the social phenomenon of the last half century and he suggested that it is facilitated because “we have reinvented how we interact with each other so that it does not rely on civic engagement.”

Schwartz is interested in efforts that focus on “reinvigorating, rebuilding and renewing” citizenship. He suggests that the increase in books published with the word “leadership” in the title from a relative few during the 1950s to more than 9,000 during the last five years is feeding off disengagement—“it reminds me of rabbits breeding,” he said. In a direct challenge to recently published calls for a new philanthropy, he said, “We don’t even know what the public’s needs are until it exists as a public.”

Additional quotes:
During the extended video session, Schwartz made the following comments about:

A temporary public
I was involved with a local middle school where attempts were being made to initiate a dress code. Parents were consulted. Administrators had their professional opinions of how this would take kid’s focus off having to have the most trendy, expensive clothes. There wasn’t much conversation with students. Some of the students instituted a public forum to engage in this conversation. After joking back and forth, students didn’t tend to like the dress code because they saw it as stultifying their individuality. One African-American student made an interesting point. He said, “Look, when you talk about dress codes, you’re talking about polo shirts and khaki pants. You’re talking about imposing white, middle-class, preppy standards on the whole school. It’s not that this is a neutral dress code, this is the exercise of power by one group over another (my words).” Let’s face it. He has a good point. It’s not that dress codes look like the norms in the African American community.

To be honest, the whole group came to a better understanding. They all decided they didn’t want a dress code, but also there was the formation of a public there, the formation of a community. This could spill over into other issues, but the discussion ended. It closed down.


On the Roman sidelines
One dimension of being a follower means having a spectator role. … Spectator citizenship: It allows you to have this fake involvement in politics even while you, yourself, are passive. It happened during the Roman Empire when elites created circuses and public spectacles partially because everybody was unemployed and it was dangerous to have them sitting there idly when there wasn’t a real role for their engagement.

Right heart, wrong results
Given such a massive movement in this service direction, it is quite hard to deviate from that. The people who focus on service and leadership are the people whose hearts are in the right place. They’re frustrated. They want to help. They want to contribute to the community. They want to be responsible citizens. How do you do that in a world of disengagement? You either don’t do it at all or you come up with a model of service that works assuming that disengagement. Philanthropy, service, leadership; they are the central words of people trying to be responsible. They can deliver food. They can pick up trash. There is nothing inherently wrong in that, but they serve to institutionalize and to perpetuate that civic disengagement that is the reason they are needed to begin with.