Spring 2003

Editor's Introduction

Promoting Civic Education

Ronald M. Peters, Jr.


           As a graduate student at Indiana University in the early 1970s, I was required to take a two-semester sequence of courses that introduced me to the discipline of political science.  Y570 and Y571 were organized around books that had made a substantial impact upon the discipline of political science and a substantial contribution to our understanding of politics.  It seemed at the time that any number of substantial books, ranging from Robert Dahl's Pluralist Democracy in the United States to Theodore Lowi's The End of Liberalism had been written to challenge the capacity of academic acolytes like me.  Many of these books addressed, in one way or another, a substantial normative question that had come to occupy a central place in the discipline in the decades following World War II: Is democracy really possible? Data derived in the developing field of survey research seemed to indicate that most voters were passive, ill-informed, and non-participative, and that the degree to which a voter suffered from these democratic maladies was in direct proportion to his or her being rural and poor.  She was less likely to participate than he. 

           My mentor, Charles S. Hyneman, railed against this developing characterization of American citizens.  Born in a log cabin in Gibson County, Indiana, on  the Goose Creek tributary of the Patoka River, he was convinced in his bones that the average American had a perfectly good, even a sophisticated, understanding of politics, and that rural voters (he and she alike) were more likely to participate than urban dwellers.  He wrote a book, Voting in Indiana, in which he sought to establish aggregate data to support his theory with, I think, some success.

           Hyneman thought that pluralist theory offered at best a faulty characterization of the American political system, and that it threatened to steer us off course if taken to mean that participation in interest groups of whatever description was a satisfactory substitute for direct involvement in electoral politics.  The difference between his position and that of Robert Dahl and Theodore Lowi was not really at the level of values -- both Dahl and Lowi have argued for more democracy and not less -- but rather at the level of facts.  Hyneman thought that American democracy was thriving, and Dahl and Lowi thought that it wasn't.

           I left Indiana University in 1974 and came to the University of Oklahoma in 1975, there to plunge into a career that has revolved around my affiliation with the Carl Albert Center and the Department of Political Science.  At OU, as at IU, we require a course that proposes to introduce graduate students to the discipline of political science.  This course has been taught be various members of the faculty, and I have myself taught it on a couple of occasions.  At some point along the way, discussion about this course stumbled upon the question: What is political science?  This question arose in part because it appeared no longer possible to easily identify major books that provided focus on a central set of questions that might serve to orient the discipline taken as a whole.  Instead, American political science had evolved into a set of highly differentiated sub-disciplines, each with its own journals and favored publishing houses.  There was little dialogue across these specialized enclaves. 

           So I have been interested to observe the impact of Robert Putnam's Bowling Alone on the discipline of American political science, as well as the attention that it has drawn in the popular press.  Putnam marshals substantial evidence to support a claim that levels of civic engagement, including political participation, have declined dramatically  in the United States over the past fifty years.  The questions that had engaged political scientists such as Charles Hyneman in the 1950s  and 1960s had returned in a new guise drawing on evidence that earlier scholars had not thought to address.  Ironically, Putnam's "social capital" theory suggests that the 1950s and 1960s were actually high water marks of civic engagement in comparison to levels experienced today.  Putnam's thesis has drawn challengers, including most recently Theda Skopcpol. Her just released book from the University of Oklahoma Press, Diminished Democracy, traces the rise and decline of mass membership associations in the United States.  She argues that Putnam's social capital theory does not offer the best explanation of the decline in this form of civic engagement, and suggests instead that it is the capture of mass membership associations by managerial elites that has affected levels of civic engagement.  Underlying this debate between Putnam and Skocpol is an important empirical/normative question, one that Charles Hyneman would have appreciated: Is democracy best served by civic engagement at the local level building social capital, or on a national level as citizens translate their personal experience into broader national issues via mass membership organizations?

           Political scientists are, of course, academicians, and it is not often that even leading scholars such as Putnam and Skocpol are able to have the sort of direct impact on national debate and policy formation as these two have had.  But this does not mean that the concerns that have motivated their research have not been addressed within the academy and by other organizations that have sought to promote levels of civic engagement, political participation, and public understanding of politics.  In this issue of Extensionswe offer windows on the activities of five organizations that have sought to enhance public understanding of the Congress and of representative government, and to promote participation among younger Americans.  Two of these organizations, the Carl Albert Center at the University of Oklahoma and the Center on Congress at Indiana University, are based on college campuses.  One, the Everett McKinley Dirksen Congressional Center, in Pekin, Illinois, has maintained strong relationships with academia while also developing programs that serve primary and secondary education.  Two organizations, the Close Up Foundation and C-SPAN, operate out of Washington, D.C. yet reach out across the country in person and via television to touch upon the lives of many Americans. 

           Each of these organizations seeks to address the concerns that animated the scholarship of political scientists such as Charles Hyneman, Robert Dahl, Theodore Lowi, Robert Putnam, and Theda Skocpol. They  recognize the problem, and they seek to do something about it.  We at the Carl Albert Center are proud to be included among organizations seeking to foster civic engagement and public understanding of our government, and to promote political participation among younger Americans. Each of the articles in this issue describes the activities of one such organization.  We hope that our readers will find these articles interesting and informative, and that they will draw upon the resources that these programs have to offer to support the foundations of our democratic system.

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