Interview with Peter Levine

The Civic Honors Project had a chance to interview Peter Levine who is a research scholar at the Institute for Philosophy and Public Policy at the University of Maryland and deputy director of CIRCLE: The Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning & Engagement. Peter Levine is also involved in several online projects, which have caught our attention, especially the Weblog.

1. Can locating information and discussion about ideas related to civic engagement on the Internet help strengthen voluntary nonprofit organizations like the civic honors project?

To a limited extent, yes. Today, the best scholarly work is still found in books, and to a lesser extent in peer-reviewed journal articles than tend not to be posted online. So if you want scholarly information and analysis, there is still no substitute for a library. But it depends on what questions you are trying to answer. You may be able to get a good project together without much research at all.

2. How important is encouraging civic engagement of young Americans to developing long term changes within society?

If we do not reverse declines in civic engagement among young people, those who are least advantaged will continue to drop out, leading to an electorate than more and more perfectly reflects the values and interests of the wealthy and best educated in our society. That will be a “change”–but not a good one, in my view.

3. Are organizations like the National Alliance for Civic Education?s online presence the future of discussion on civil society?

Almost all the best conversations I am involved with are face-to-face. Websites and weblogs tend not to be visited and re-visited often enough to sustain good discussions. Email exchanges and listservs are OK, although the amount of text involved tends to be small. Meetings, conferences, and conference calls remain essential.

4. Will programs like graduation with civic honors help to enhance a beneficial commons for civil society that helps motivate citizens to be involved?

(I’m not sure what “commons” means here.) Will the program motivate citizens to be involved?–I hope so. Since we already have a cadre of highly involved young people, the question is whether the uninvolved and alienated will be motivated by a new honors program. It’s worth trying.

5. How will civil society moving toward the Internet change the way information is exchanged and organizations try to encourage volunteerism?

This is a complex question, and the answer is uncertain. My argument has been that volunteers are motivated by face-to-face, human ties and community membership. The Internet sometimes substitutes distant and ad hoc relationships for such ties. Thus I would tend to predict that the Internet will reduce the level of volunteerism, all else being equal. Clearly, it is nice to have online databases of local volunteer opportunities. However, the most common barrier to volunteering is not a lack of information about opportunities; it is a lack of motivation. I don’t think that websites are usually very motivating.

6. Does your background in philosophy help define your perspective on how volunteerism benefits civil society?

My philosophical position would be something like this: (1) Volunteerism is an inadequate form of civic engagement, because it replaces political action with service, which does not address the root cause of problems or tap the political capacities of the volunteers. (2) Civic engagement should be cultivated for two reasons. First, if we don’t deliberately teach it, the least advantaged among us will be the first to disengage, leading to political inequality later on. Second, civic participation is a good human activity. It is not the only or highest good activity: theoretical reflection, spiritual contemplation, appreciation of nature, creation of art, and care for family members are some of the other activities that are inherently good. All of these ends or projects are preferable to the forms of life that are more frequently advertised to young people: consumerism, athletics, and sexual gratification. Moreover, we cannot teach activities connected to spirituality or care for family in public schools. Therefore, we ought to teach civic engagement (along with art and science) so that it is an option available to young people.

7. Has your path through higher education motivated your work in developing creative commons environments and working to strengthen civic engagement?

The commons idea is a fairly sophisticated concept that I probably would not have encountered outside of the academy (at this early point in the history of the idea). Moreover, universities at their best are creative commons, so I suppose I have been inspired by academic ideals.

I have been consistently interested in civic engagement since my years in college, when I helped start a financial program to encourage volunteering and also interned for the Kettering Foundation.

8. Can programs that reward volunteerism like graduating with civic honors make a long-term difference within society?

Again, I am not thrilled about volunteerism, which often substitutes for political engagement or community problem-solving, and which often has a patronizing aspect. Programs that increase civic engagement (more broadly defined) could change both the nature of the electorate and their styles of participation for a long time to come. This is because habits of engagement or disengagement tend to be set in the years between 15 and 25.

9. Looking at the development of the Internet and the changes in ways people communicate what is the next step for online volunteerism?

It would be good to see people in local communities creating high-end public goods online, such as video documentaries, databases of local assets, oral history projects, news sources, and structured deliberative forums. This is what we are trying to do here: We also need to encourage people to create and give away open-source software of public value.

10. Why do you think volunteerism and civic engagement transcend modern politics as issues that bring people together?

Do you mean, “Why do people volunteer together, even when they disagree?” That’s because volunteering is often non-controversial, whereas politics is the method we use to solve disagreements. Or do you mean, “Why do people across the ideological spectrum come together to support volunteerism and civic engagement?” I think the answer to that question is that there is usually more agreement about the processes and requirements of democracy than there is about any particular issue that politicians debate. Furthermore, volunteerism is “soft” and unthreatening. Note, however, that the Corporation for National Service was highly controversial during the years of the Clinton administration, when many Congressional Republicans attacked federal promotion of volunteering as an inappropriate use of public money.

The Civic Honors Project would like to thank Peter Levin for his time and more importantly, the ideas that his writing has inspired.

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