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