Interview with Jean Bethke Elshtain

Recently the Civic Honors Project had the opportunity to interview Jean Bethke Elshtain who is the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Professor of Social and Political Ethics at the University of Chicago and is the author of Democracy on Trial.

  1. Is civic engagement declining in modern American society, and does it matter?

It appears to be, if we can trust the empirical data. It matters because the American democracy has been so uniquely dependent on citizen engagement. Toqueville here.

  1. How important is volunteering to a community as a whole in the long term?

Without the hands-on efforts of platoons of volunteers, community life in all its aspects would be immensely poorer and more isolating. I don’t think we can even measure it–it is so significant in so many ways, many not entirely visible to us–all those tendrils reaching out and attaching us to one another.

  1. How does civic participation change the dynamics of the community?

The more participation there is, the more there is, so to speak. That is, civic participation becomes a developed habit. When people do it, they not only get the habit of it, they help to form others in this way of being a community citizen.

  1. Can programs like graduating with civic honors help change the level of civic participation in the community?

I actually doubt that. Civic engagement — by that I don’t mean mobilizing people for a narrowly partisan purpose, I don’t think that should be part of a curriculum, but teaching civic habits, yes–should be recognized and certainly informally honored. But once you grind it up and put it in a curricular structure in a formal sense, it loses much of its authentic character, becomes more ‘professionalized.’

  1. Readings on engagement and civil society often talk about the changes that are occurring within society, what are the best alternatives suggested to increase engagement in civil society?

To form children in civic knowledge and habits. This formation must take place early on–in grade school, middle school, high school. Really getting at this dimensions of the passing on of a civic tradition is what we need most desperately.

  1. What kind of vision does it take at the community level of leadership to be able to motivate individuals to volunteer?

A vision that understands that we can come to know a good in common we cannot know alone; that it is vital to engage with others in a variety of contexts. It doesn’t require any comprehensive ‘public philosophy’,.just a rough and ready civic disposition.

  1. Is it possible to nurture trends in volunteering at the national level or do will it take the vision of regional and local organizations?

The smaller the better. Mostly the government shouldn’t get in the way. But the government contributes by helping to lift up politics as the way a free people does the people’s business. And a clearer animation of the polity by our most enduring principles–that, too, helps. I think more of that has been done and is being done since 9/11. Too bad we needed that plenary jolt to think again about the necessity of civic transmission.

  1. If you were thinking about what is possible within communities what is the one thing that would stick out as being most important to try to accomplish?

I refer back to my question about civic education.

  1. How does collaboration at the national and local level impact volunteering efforts?

It helps to strengthen it, so long as one doesn’t get highly professionalized NGOs trying to run the show.

  1. How can programs be designed to take into account both large and small communities while still building models that will be successful nationally?

Reading Catholic Social Thought would help! It’s all there in the so-called doctrine of subsidiarity. Try JPII’s encyclical, “Centesimus Annus”. I’m serious! This is uncannily apt to our situation.

The Civic Honors Project would like to thank Jean Bethke Elshtain for the interview and more importantly, the ideas that Jean’s writing has inspired.

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