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Citizens Aren’t Just Born. They’re Formed

Why civil society is no substitute for a distinctively political education.

Kevin den Dulk
Kevin den Dulk
Dr. Kevin R. den Dulk (Ph.D., University of Wisconsin at Madison) is the Paul B. Henry Chair in Political Science and the Executive Director of the Henry Institute for the Study of Christianity and Politics at Calvin College. His work focuses especially on how religion works through civil society to foster democratic citizenship, both in the United States and abroad. He has co-authored or co-edited several books.

My university (yes: by press time Calvin College will be a university) recently crafted an “educational framework.” Its purpose, as I understand it, is to “operationalize” our primary mission. Three of its four categories of goals—“faith,” “learning,” and “vocation”—are standard fare for an institution of both higher learning and Christian persuasion. While the fourth category—“citizenship”—has a less obvious connection to mission, the thrust of the other three lead in its direction. A Christian university committed to learning and vocation ought to educate for citizenshipa calling none of us can escape. At least that’s my reading as a civic educator.

But what does “citizenship” look like in the nitty-gritty? This kind of document, built for accreditors as much as faculty and students, answers in the language of goals and outcomes. The goals for citizenship exhort us to engagement, cultural intelligence, ecological stewardship, and Christian service; the outcomes promise intercultural knowledge, discernment of racism, responsible participation, and virtues of empathy, courage, and justice. All worthy—even indispensable—commitments, to be sure. And the framework’s illustrations of what citizenship might look like in practice—conducting research on the care of creation, studying abroad, volunteering in a residence hall or art studio—are admirable in their own ways.

But what is absent speaks just as clearly. Neither the goals nor the outcomes say anything about distinctively civic learning, a citizen’s relationship to the state, or political cultures or structures. Neither do the practical recommendations. The terms “state,” “government,” “civic,” “political,” “democracy,” and “public institution” fail to make an appearance. The impression is that citizenship is about how we serve each other in civil society, a place where citizens meet outside the state and political community. We aspire to send into the world students who embrace responsible citizenship as part of faithful discipleship, but we exclude government and the body politic from that aspiration.

Let me stipulate that civil society, under the right conditions, does help us cultivate our life in common. The evidence is deep and wide on that point, though qualified considerably by those conditions. We might come away from participation in fraternal groups and sports leagues and houses of worship with capacities and dispositions that good citizens should possess. But maybe not. And recent evidence suggests that “maybe not” describes the reality more often than some civil-society triumphalists see or admit. Civil society, it seems, will not save politics.

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