Graeff, E. 2023 “Locating Empowerment and Technical Intuition in how we frame U.S. Civic Education.” In Haste, H & Bempechat, J, eds., New civics, new citizens: Critical, competent and responsible agents. Leiden, Netherlands: Brill.
This chapter argues for defining a good civic education in terms of empowerment and technical intuition. Synthesizing the debates surrounding two recent theories of civic learning, Danielle Allen’s book Education and Equality and essay “What is Education for?” and Ethan Zuckerman’s article “New Media, New Civics?”, I investigate the growing importance to contemporary democracy of developing specific abilities for digital civic engagement, having authentic civic and political experiences, and making citizen voice and influence synonymous. I find a strong thread tying digital civic engagement and civic education together with questions such as: How do we best enhance the civic efficacy and empowerment of young people, and of citizens more generally? I conclude that the goal for designers of civic education programs should be to model their efforts on what Sara Evans and Harry Boyte call “free spaces”.
Democracy as citizen-centered governance requires citizen empowerment (sometimes called “civic agency”), and empowered citizens need certain skills, knowledge, attitudes, and habits that lead to effective civic engagement. Empowering experiences and learning opportunities can promote a virtuous cycle of reinforcing citizen empowerment and strengthening democracy. Spaces like town hall meetings, protest marches, the voting booth, and the civic education classroom traditionally represent where these experiences and opportunities take place. The emergence of networked digital media have created new, pervasive civic spaces – the networked public sphere. Whereas public spaces offline have seen a decline in the U.S.,2 their online replacements, largely private spaces like Facebook, have grown to astounding size and influence with limited accountability to governments and the public. This means the definition of an empowered citizen has stretched beyond traditional capabilities and contexts to encompass a broad range of digital capabilities and experiences.
This chapter seeks to articulate this broadened definition by being in dialogue with and synthesizing recent debates in U.S. civic education and civic engagement scholarship, specifically those surrounding Danielle Allen’s book Education and Equality and Ethan Zuckerman’s article “New Media, New Civics?” In the end, I propose that designers of civic education programs aim forcivic empowerment that incorporates what Alix Dunn (2018) calls “technical intuition” and create opportunities to practice civics in online and offline contexts modeled on what Sara Evans and Harry Boyte call “free spaces”.