Howard Gardner is a mentor of mine. So it was with personal interest that I picked up this memoir to learn a little bit about the scholar I worked for at Project Zero a decade ago. His voice really comes through in this book. I can hear his didactic tone but also the levity when he cracks a bit of a dad joke. I like the structure of the book around his intellectual development and the set of experiences that contribute to recognizing and using his “synthesizing mind.” I came away with a deeper appreciation for Howard and the opportunity to work alongside him and learn from him.
There are also some valuable insights in this book for scholars trying to make sense of their own work, especially ideas that take on a life of their own, such as his theory of multiple intelligences. Howard is rightfully proud of his work despite its misinterpretation and misuse. Fortunately, his curiosity is his guide and his deeply held principles delineate a path toward richer research and applications of his attention toward practical ends in education that have served many people well. I really loved how he acknowledged that projects can fail and some endeavors just simply end, but that there is value in the relationships developed and the people touched by even a short-term effort like the MI-based schools he writes about.
For me, the book was a quick read. And as I am also an academic, there was much wisdom in this meta-narrative from a leading light in the social sciences (or “social relations”). May I maintain his tenacity and curiosity in my own work and keep avoiding disciplinary silos.
Civic technology is an amplifier. It amplifies democracy by applying technology.
Democracy × TechnologyCivic
The technology part of this equation has been doing pretty well. Technology keeps advancing, making certain things easier and more efficient. There are also exciting movements in technology meant to instill public purpose among technologists. Code for America followed by the United States Digital Service and 18F have provided an outlet for technologists eager to build technology that allows governments to be more effective and accountable to citizens. Public Interest Technology, advanced by several prominent foundations, offers a framework for encouraging STEM professionals to engage in politics and policy and more broadly find their bearings by serving the public interest. The National Academy of Engineering’s Grand Challenges Scholars Program seeks to enlarge the definition of the competencies STEM graduates need in order to tackle the world’s most difficult challenges. I celebrate these movements and participate in them.
The democracy part of the equation has been struggling. There is low trust in democratic institutions around the world. Surveys show declines in young people believing that living in a democracy is essential.1 There are also long standing crises in civic engagement at all levels of collective governance. Scholars and journalists have given various reasons for civic engagement’s decline: dwindling enrollments in informal organizations like bowling leagues, the rise of cable television and the internet, newfound awareness of corrupt and racist politicians and policies, and hyperpartisan politics touching every issue and locality. As threats to democracy mount, civic education as a component of primary, secondary, and higher education has gone missing in many schools or, where it still exists, represents antiquated notions of democracy and America.
We are failing to appreciate that civic education is our most important civic technology. While technologists working on civic projects often mean well and make helpful contributions, we will never recover our democracy or realize the true potential of civic technology if we don’t revitalize civic education.
A 2014 study of engineering students by sociologist Erin Cech finds evidence that the culture of engineering seems to weaken students’ beliefs in their professional.2 In 2020, a cascade of headlines points to ways digital technologies are threatening justice, privacy, and democracy, and the political battles over COVID-19 have exposed deep mistrust of experts in science and medicine. Between now and 2040, our need for civic-minded STEM graduates will only grow.
We need a civic professionalism movement anchored in transformative civic education curricula built inseparably into every undergraduate STEM program.
A revitalized civic education acknowledges fundamental shifts in society and democratic practice and expands its definition of where democracy starts—not with voting but with citizen cooperation. Civic education begins in childhood, but STEM professionals also need educational experiences that help them recognize their profound roles and responsibilities as citizens. We need to entwine technical literacy and civic literacy. We need civic professionals in STEM, who think first as citizens, practice their profession in deeply democratic ways, and build civic technology as expressions of the identities they have developed through years of civic education.
Democratic educator Harry Boyte has written and advocated for constructing professional identities like the “citizen engineer,” an engineer who acknowledges the public dimensions of their work, not separating their citizen identity from their engineer identity.3 Democratic theorist Albert Dzur gives us the idea of “democratic professionalism” as power sharing.4 Civic professionals embrace multiple forms of expertise, complementing their specialized skills with the unique experiences of fellow citizens to solve difficult problems. These open and accountable collaborations build public trust in professionals through mutual respect and shared struggle.
Civic professionals must also learn to embrace the political dimensions of their work, acknowledging the ways that technical work is always situated in particular contexts and depends on certain structures and policies that serve some ideas, people, and outcomes well and others poorly. Cech’s research with higher education professional Heidi Sherick has found depoliticization of work to be one of the problematic pillars of engineering culture.5 Science and engineering are not cleanly separable from the rest of society. That mindset robs our democracy of STEM’s public purpose and accountability. Instead, civic professionals should aspire toward what Boyte calls “public work,” committing to models of co-creation, joint problem solving, and shared ownership.6 Public work binds us together in our shared citizenship and represents the foundational elements of democracy as a project of collective governance.
Education scholar Carolin Kreber envisions forging civic professional identities through transformative experiences in undergraduate education.7 A transformative STEM civic education is action-oriented and community-engaged, forcing us to challenge and revise our assumptions, values, and identities. It asks students to practice their profession in partnership with the public at the beginning of their training. Working with citizens outside of the classroom helps cultivate civic-mindedness. A civic professional’s new competencies include being able to frame a complex problem in partnership with community members who may not possess technical knowledge but whose lived experiences lead to the right questions and priorities necessary to setting a research and design agenda.
This is the future of STEM education our world needs most, reclaiming the public purpose of higher education and rebuilding trust in professions. During the next 20 years, society will continue to ask STEM graduates and the technology they create to solve its thorniest challenges. We need civic professionals in STEM who understand and identify with a much deeper sense of their public purpose, who are prepared to amplify our collective effort as citizens.
Foa, Roberto Stefan, and Yascha Mounk. 2017. “The Signs of Deconsolidation.” Journal of Democracy 28 (1): 5–16.
Cech, Erin A. 2014. “Culture of Disengagement in Engineering Education?” S cience, Technology, & Human Values 39 (1): 42–72.
Boyte, Harry. 2008. T he Citizen Solution: How You Can Make A Difference. Saint Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press.
Dzur, Albert W. 2010. D emocratic Professionalism: Citizen Participation and the Reconstruction of Professional Ethics, Identity, and Practice. University Park, PA: Penn State University Press. Dzur, Albert. 2018. D emocracy Inside: Participatory Innovation in Unlikely Places. New York: Oxford University Press.
Cech, Erin A., and Heidi M. Sherick. 2015. “Depoliticization and the Structure of Engineering Education.” In International Perspectives on Engineering Education: Engineering Education and Practice in Context, Volume 1, edited by Steen Hyldgaard Christensen, Christelle Didier, Andrew Jamison, Martin Meganck, Carl Mitcham, and Byron Newberry, 203–16. Philosophy of Engineering and Technology. Cham: Springer International Publishing.
Boyte, Harry. 2004. E veryday Politics: Reconnecting Citizens and Public Life. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
Kreber, Carolin. 2016. E ducating for Civic-Mindedness. New York: Routledge.
Graeff, E. 2019. ‘Everyone Should Be Involved in Designing, Implementing, and Evaluating Digital Surveillance Technology.’ In Levinson, M & Fay, J, eds., Democratic Discord in Schools: Cases and Commentaries in Educational Ethics. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press.
Although digital surveillance technologies may seem to be purely technical innovations, how technology is designed always also involves political choices. Technology design embodies the values of its designers and those who commission the design, as well as the values embedded in the underlying structures it often abstracts and amplifies. When digital surveillance technologies are used in schools without being subject to appropriate political discussion and contestation, they threaten democratic education in several ways. First, they impose a set of policies that affect the rights of students and parents without consulting them in their design and implementation. Second, they may chill legitimate student inquiry or even criminalize students who are researching topics or personal questions deemed taboo or dangerous according to administrators. Building on participatory design and “popular technology” principles, I thus recommend that schools involve students, parents, teachers, and administrators in collective deliberation about the design, scope, and use of digital surveillance technologies.
Monitorial forms of civic engagement are on the rise, sparked by high levels of mistrust in governments and politicians around the world and access to technology that makes recording, organizing, and sharing information easier. We need to ask what this means for how we conceive of citizenship, the design of our civic tools, and the future of civic learning. This presentation introduces a new definition for monitorial citizenship, surveys exemplar technologies and practices, and calls us to action to design new technology and pedagogy.
“Monitorial citizenship is a form of civic engagement in which people collect information about their surroundings or track issues of local or personal interest in order to improve their communities and pursue justice. Common activities of the monitorial citizen include collecting information, sharing stories and insights, coordinating with networks of other civic actors, and pursuing accountability for institutions and elite individuals and their perceived responsibilities.” (Graeff 2018). Technologies that support monitorial citizenship have been used for a range of civic and political work from activism to participatory governance to disaster response. Educators and youth organizers play an important role in encouraging young people to develop monitorial skills, use these tools, and launch new projects.
One of the best tricks educators can use is the technique of pulling students out of the classroom to encounter the issues we’re studying in the “real world.” So it’s a gift when an artist of the calibre of Anna Deavere Smith opens a new work in Cambridge just as the semester is starting. And given that our lab, the Center for Civic Media, studies how making and disseminating media can lead to civic and social change through movements like Black Lives Matter, a three-hour performance about the school-to-prison pipeline is an unprecedented pedagogical gift. A dozen of us made our way to the American Repertory Theatre at the end of August for a performance we’ll likely discuss for the rest of the academic year.
Deavere Smith’s work is often referred to as “documentary theatre,” and Notes From The Field: Doing Time In Education follows a model she’s rightly been celebrated for. Portraying individuals she’s interviewed while researching a controversial topic, she recreates their physical tics and speech patterns on stage, telling their stories—and the work’s larger narrative—through their original words.
Part of what makes this work is Deavere Smith’s ungodly skill at mimicry. As it happened, the first character she portrayed during Notes From The Field is a friend of Ethan’s—Sherrilyn Ifill, director of the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund—and when he closed his eyes, the rhythm of her speech was so similar to Sherrilyn’s voice, he thought it must be a recording. In the next scene, as Deavere Smith donned orange waders to become a 6’4″ 300-pound Native American fisherman, we were all willing to suspend any disbelief.
More important, Deavere Smith has chosen a story that’s best told from numerous points of view. The phrase “school to prison pipeline” was coined as early as 1998 to explain how zero-tolerance school discipline policies were leading students of color to be suspended at much higher rates than white students, and that school suspensions correlated to arrests later in life. But even the connection between police officers in schools and racial disparities in the US prison population only scratches the surface of these complex issues. Deavere Smith’s characters talk about urban poverty, absent parents, police brutality, drug abuse, the effects of trauma on children, the legacy of segregation, and the significance of the Confederate Flag. These are intimate, authentic portraits. Playing an emotional support teacher from Philadelphia, Deavere Smith relates stories of kids with bizarre behavioral issues bearing a strong resemblance to those shared by Erhardt’s mother over many decades teaching the same demographic. Sadly, many of her former students are now in prison.
Facing a challenge as complicated as “Why is American society failing so many Americans of color?” it’s hard to know where to start. In a sense, Notes From The Field starts everywhere: the Yurok Indian Reservation, the schools of Stockton, CA, the streets of Baltimore, the Capitol Building in Columbia, South Carolina. Anyone who’s worked on school to prison pipeline issues knows it’s hard to know where to start. “First, reform American education. And the prison system. And an economy that provides few opportunities for low-skilled workers. And end racism.” But Deavere Smith isn’t content with just providing a nuanced and moving picture of an impossible set of problems—she wants to fix them. More to the point, she wants us to be engaged in fixing them. To scaffold this, the play invites us into an implicit arc of witnessing, civic reflection, and taking action.
One of Deavere Smith’s characters is Kevin Moore, who recorded video of Freddie Gray’s arrest and transfer into the police van. In the interview she recreates, Moore explains that he was detained by Baltimore police after releasing his video, but that he was grateful for help from Copwatch, an organization that trains citizens to observe and record law enforcement actions, especially for buying him multiple cameras. Deavere Smith clearly believes our power to witness and to share what we see can help change the equation around police abuse of power as cameras and the power of sousveillance run as a theme through the performance.
Video leaves us not with justice, but with an indelible image. The image likely to stay in our minds is that of a black high school student being thrown to the ground by Ben Fields, a white police officer (and school football coach) who drags her out of a classroom. Deveare Smith uses the footage as the backdrop of an interview in which the young woman who shot the video of her classmate explains how she was arrested and held in an adult jail for taking the footage. The ubiquity of citizen video creates a steady stream of unflinching videos that demand we don’t turn away, and Deavere Smith’s work holds our head steady and eyelids open.
The play itself functions as a radically deep form of witnessing. It concentrates the affective experience of witnessing for its audience by taking stories and videos and presenting them with careful curation and delivery. Deavere Smith’s acting threads together the individual elements in the school to prison pipeline and the current events that exemplify their problems. Breaking through what otherwise might be perceived as a collage of statistics and headlines associated with Black Lives Matter, she re-humanizes the people at the heart of these stories and invites us to walk in their shoes. The hope is that this will touch the audience in a way that an isolated video, protest march, or social media campaign cannot.
After a riveting 80 minutes of vignettes in different voices, Act Two of the show asks the audience to break into 15 person groups and to reflect on the issues raised and what we, as individuals, could do to address them. While it may be radical to insert a group discussion into a performance, sitting in a room full of well-meaning, progressive Cantabrigians who care deeply about making change but have no idea what to do is an awfully familiar experience for many of us at the Center for Civic Media, and likely for most of the audience.
Rather than prescribing solutions, we are asked to reflect on something larger than ourselves—an effect that is often the mark of a good work of art. This may be the show’s core purpose: civic reflection. We know this kind of reflexivity and analysis is a potent civic skill. There is also a movement-building “public narrative” invoked: a story of self, of us, and of now [pdf]. For those privileged enough to attend the play, we witness those directly affected by the issue and then Act Two’s facilitators ask us step into the Deavere Smith’s shoes as interviewer. We project our own perspectives and hear those of the others in our group. And we try to deepen our appreciation of the issue in a way that will cement its effect on us beyond the theater and give us a sense of urgency.
In a vignette late in Act One, a schoolteacher explains that she cannot solve the problems of the whole education system, so she works to save one child. Deveare Smith calls on us to repeat this phrase: “save one child.”
That’s a tough call to action. We are educators, but the students we work with aren’t ones in need of saving—do we answer the call by teaching at a community college? An under-resourced high school? Given the early start to the pipeline, do we teach kindergarten or preschool? Ethan’s sister is foster mother to a child born to a drug-addicted mother—he has a sense for the incredible sacrifice that can be required to save a child. Erhardt’s sister teaches theatre to urban youth hoping to provide the same outlet for truth Deavere Smith’s work does—but opportunities for such work are few and often poorly supported. How much must we do? How much can we do?
It will take revolutions in thought and policy to address the issues at the core of the school to prison pipeline. Vignettes like the schoolteacher scale the overwhelming task down to what others are doing to make a difference in their small corner of society. Bravely recording violent assaults by authority figures and not giving up on kids that need mentors the most are modeled behaviors that we might strive to emulate. There is not a clear “ask” embedded in the piece,* but it is a starting point that angers the audience and forces us to ask hard questions—a mighty accomplishment.
The play ends with Deavere Smith as Representative John Lewis. His story as a leader in the Civil Rights Movement is powerful and offers a vision of reconciliation with our racist past. He is also a symbol of our representative democracy. We elect people with the hope that they will fix these types of problems. The call to action implies we are all stakeholders—the radical and the procedural—that it will take all of society and we can’t give up on any institution or any person—like the teachers in the piece refuse to do.