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Civic Humanism as a Foundation for Civic Literacy.

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Remarks: This essay on civic humanism was originally designed as both an independent work and the first part of a series. This point is explained in the text. Yet professional circumstances change, so later sections must be (significantly) postponed. This is of course of little direct interest to the reader, who is concerned only with content. With this in mind, the main point is to offer the work as having some independent value, in that it forms a humanistic foundation for civic literacy; and although suggesting an immediate sequence of works, will be presented “as is”, for now.


Civic Humanism as a Foundation for Civic Literacy.
Edward Eggleston

Civic and political participation for adults is the central topic for this article series. For this topic, we have an understood context of the present democratic US. Our first text is an introduction to the series as a whole, and also introduces a secondary topic group for more immediate discussion.

Concerning the project series as a whole, there is a basic division to observe. First, we recognize and develop a certain philosophical and humanistic foundation. A form of civic humanism is introduced. Ideas of autonomy, critical distance, and the relation of the individual and their social-political environment occupy a central place in this first area.

Our second area can be described, in short form, as conventional political participation materials: political science, policy studies, economics, etc. We associate these materials and subject areas with the US social-political system in its present highly developed state.

The larger design of this article series, then, reflects both areas; a beginning article group with a focus on civic humanism, and a second section of conventional materials for political participation. This design, however, reflects far more than practical organization. The division into humanistic foundation and conventional political subjects is offered as quite necessary. Beginning with the individual, their knowledge for decision-making, and the special perspective this implies is followed here as critical; and so this perspective must be developed and given its due weight — both as a position to continuously hold, and certainly before presenting knowledge from specialty areas.

Despite a level of obviousness: civic and political knowledge must be assimilated by the individual to be useful. What is not obvious is how the considerable range of specialty knowledge might be usefully treated. Thus the stress on the individual perspective “as such” provides a limited form for this considerable problem. From this general description, we see why a (civic) humanism foundation — a certain individual perspective — is taken as necessary. In this article series, extended discussion of the individual perspective is offered as an essential preface to later materials.

With this, the two-part introduction is largely complete. This article series addresses civic-political participation, with two main divisions. Conventional political materials will come later. Civic humanism is our primary area, envisioned as an essential preface. Thus introduced, we can begin with the first main section of the preface materials.


Preface section one

The first preface section explores the idea of a humanistic foundation for civic humanism, as previously noted. Central discussion areas are the individual and their knowledge of the current democratic environment. With a special stress on the person, our discussion areas are slightly expanded: self-knowledge, knowledge of the social-political environment, and a more balanced and advanced form that includes and relates the two; with this more integrated goal described as knowledge autonomy. These categories suggest the basic direction of this discussion, both for the first preface section, and for later development. The individual as a center of value and knowledge forms a humanistic foundation for this preface.

More specifically, this first preface section has three main parts. First, an interpretive idea concerning the US and its dominant knowledge model. This idea must be presented first in shorter form. The next part introduces the Beutelsbach Consensus. This valuable document discusses political instruction, related knowledge for active citizens, and indicates a firm humanistic basis. These preface materials reflect both agreement with and development of certain essential Consensus features. The third part builds on the first two, as another interpretive idea about the US: in view of our dominant knowledge model, and serious concerns about adequate (humanistic) knowledge as stressed in the Beutelsbach Consensus, we have a certain “democratic knowledge problem.” This problem reflects a general disinterest in developing knowledge autonomy. As knowledge autonomy is required for our idea of civic humanism, it is central to this discussion. With noting these three parts, we discuss them in turn.


1. A dominant knowledge model

First, an interpretive idea about the dominant knowledge model of the US (I. Berlin)1. This complex view requires further explanation, but is presented briefly for now: the dominant US knowledge model is based on (empirical) science and derivative forms of technical-economic rationality (A. N. Whitehead and P. Ricoeur)2. Science and technical-economic rationality are extremely influential in major institutions such as government and corporations, and arguably predominant in education. In this social-intellectual context, the strength, influence, or educational role of central humanistic-philosophical ideas are ambiguous at best. As explained subsequently, the development of these central humanistic-philosophical ideas into a level of knowledge autonomy is essential for political decision-making. Thus forming a limited and alternate intellectual model, based on a humanistic foundation, will be a central task in this preface. We should not forget that this kind of undertaking is not favored by the current dominant model.

To support forming this alternate model of civic humanism, we will include key ideas from the Beutelsbach Consensus. This combination is a central feature of the second section. The following remarks introduce the Consensus text.


2. Civic humanism and the Beutelsbach Consensus

The post WWII German democracy emerged in immensely difficult circumstances — and this phrase still reflects understatement. In view of the challenges, then, tremendous efforts for social stability were needed. As part of supporting the new government, a political education system developed, with extensive programs and resources. These resources often reveal a marked seriousness and related quality level. The Beutelsbach Konsens was developed in this basic context, in the 1970s. Political instruction is by nature highly contentious, and this document reflects a form of agreement — a kind of educational model or framework, designed to overcome the particular difficulties of bias and indoctrination. Another hallmark is the citizen as center — either student or adult — and this is directly tied to the bias issue. For the support of an understood democratic context: what principles and framework must be in place for political instruction?


Der Beutelsbacher Konsens (1976)3

1. Prohibition on exerting pressure. It is not permitted – by any means – to pressure students into accepting a given opinion, and thereby preventing them from developing their own views. This marks exactly the difference between political education and indoctrination. Indoctrination is unacceptable for the teacher’s role in a democratic society, and for the uniformly accepted goal of developing student’s independence and maturity of judgment.

2. Controversial political and scholarly issues should be presented as such to students. This requirement is closely tied to the previous statements, for if a variety of views are not presented, (key) options may be lost, with remaining alternatives harder to place and assess. This can contribute to indoctrination. The question arises whether the instructor even has a corrective role here, meaning whether contrasting views in particular need development; so that students, and other participants in political instruction events, are provided with views differing from those of their respective social and political backgrounds.

It is clear then, that in giving these two basic principles, why the teacher’s personal point of view – either as academic/theoretical perspective or political opinion – becomes comparatively uninteresting. To restate the example: the teacher’s view of democratic ideas presents no problem, because opposing views are also fairly presented.

3. Students must be instructed in such a way as to comprehend their own interests and a given political situation. This is understood to include ways and means for exerting influence in a political circumstance, in accord with their perceived interests. Such goals include then a considerable stress on skills for personal involvement, taken as a logical consequence of the previous main principles.

(Translation by Edward Eggleston.)


 … the uniformly accepted goal of developing student’s independence and maturity of judgment.

This praiseworthy goal, no doubt, is widely accepted in the US. The more important question is whether it is effectively pursued and supported, for students or adults. The interpretation accepted here is that it is not (generally speaking). It is not a question of good intentions, but results. This idea forms a necessary baseline for this preface.

Yet the reason for discussing the Consensus text is not to offer criticism, but to develop a positive humanistic response. Although only latent, perhaps, there is a quality of democratic idealism in the text, an optimism regarding individual potential and development. Put somewhat differently, we find and agree with certain central features: as an educational and personal development model, the text suggests a clear humanistic foundation. We want to establish this for our model as well. Over this foundation, a process is indicated for maintaining these principles. This is equally important. With these two features, we have their positive culmination: the goal of the intellectually independent individual.

A key idea from the Consensus illustrates this goal, with its democratic and humanistic qualities. The individual should develop and refine their “maturity of judgment”; the complex skill of making “free/independent choices among (understood) alternatives.” And this truly is a complex skill, as only brief reflection shows. Even apparently simple decisions actually exist in a complex context, and this especially is an idea to develop with the others noted: the individual-centered foundation, its development by knowledge sharing, and the finality of knowledge autonomy. Remarks on each of these aspects of civic humanism will follow. First, however, a comment on the individual-centered foundation and its place in the preface.

While part 1 offered an interpretive idea about the US and its dominant knowledge model, part 2 describes a response called civic humanism, with reference to central Consensus ideas. As noted, these are parts of a larger preface — an article series, where this text is the first. This text is a beginning point, within which our description of civic humanism here, in part 2, is also in an early stage. We are describing the civic humanism foundation, and offering limited development. A theoretical character is required.


Civic humanism

As noted, civic humanism is presented as an alternate model in the US context. The term model indicates a group of integrated ideas, and their use in a limited educational and personal development pattern. Civic humanism clearly has two parts. Civic refers to involvement in a social-political setting, in the US democratic environment. Humanism emphasizes the value and development of the individual, as a universal concept. This is a philosophical statement, referring to a humanistic-philosophical idea group. The statement shows a distinct orientation. Civic humanism as a model combines philosophical and social activity features.

For these two features to be integrated in an educational pattern (for adults), our intention here, the humanistic-philosophical aspects are necessarily pervasive. This is shown especially in the finality of this model, the intellectually independent individual. In the variety of activities and knowledge, including distinctly contrasting knowledge types, the individual is the point of (humanistic) unity. It is important to note the conceptual similarities of this humanistic foundation with the Consensus text; civic humanism is clearly related as a knowledge sharing pattern with a distinct philosophical orientation.

Democratic decisions

Consensus text influence is also shown in the educational issue given above: the complex skill of making “free/independent choices among (understood) alternatives.” Developing this issue maintains the given humanistic foundation and introduces central ideas for part 3, to discuss a certain “democratic knowledge problem.”

To develop the “free choice” issue, we begin with a broad context of political decision making, and the potentially complex skills involved. Stating the issue in a general form then, to maintain a broad scope: what qualifies a given choice or analysis as “free”, or independent? As suggested by the Consensus, the relation of a decision to understood alternatives is critical. What knowledge or alternatives should be included? This implies a complex skill. Without relevant knowledge, how can the judgement be “free”?

The Consensus phrase of “a given situation” expresses directly related questions — which we will call context, or knowledge context. Even relatively simple political decisions actually exist in a complex setting, with a related knowledge context. So even in a general form, the idea of understood alternatives suggests substantial complexity, and a group of sophisticated knowledge skills. The following list reinforces the idea of complexity. Thus for a given (political) choice, analysis, or problem:

  1. What specific subject knowledge is most relevant?
  2. What relation does this issue have to self-knowledge, or a worldview; the perceived interests of the individual (as noted in the Consensus)?
  3. What aspects of a larger political-social environment are most relevant?

 All of which, quite clearly, imply layers of prior knowledge and experience. With our very dynamic knowledge environment, this suggests a related requirement of ongoing effort.


The presentation of these knowledge and decision issues is in a general form, as noted, to maintain a broad scope. Yet critical points were given for the role of the individual, as decision-making center in a complex democratic setting. For free/independent judgment, understood alternatives are necessary; and this involves a complex knowledge context. As noted in the Consensus, these alternatives are essential in instruction to avoid bias. With these brief but critical points, the idea of a complex knowledge context is extended to include knowledge types.

(Knowledge type will develop as a key concept in this preface, but to begin will be kept in a simpler categorical form. Empirical sciences, in all their variety, show a certain philosophical basis. Knowledge derived on this shared basis is distinct, in method and thus type, from knowledge developed in the context of the humanities and a separate philosophical basis. This is commonly known, but serves for categorical purposes to show the idea of knowledge type. Significant distinctions or subcategories can be developed with this basic idea in place.)

At this point, there are two main reasons to stress the idea of knowledge type within the knowledge context of “free choice” discussed above. The first involves the integrity of the humanistic-philosophical model, as maintaining the foundation and its culmination in the independent individual. In a complex knowledge context, different knowledge types might be involved; as issues of technology, biology, economics, ethics, or law. Within a given context, following our model, the humanistic center is held. We note this is a presentation form, as the individual makes their own (final) determinations. Yet the model holds to the humanistic knowledge type described, so that the goal of individual judgment remains available. This is the first main reason for emphasis on knowledge type. As previously stated, this is also a Consensus feature.

Independent choice among understood alternatives, in a complex knowledge context; where this expands to include special attention to knowledge types: both for a certain instruction model and to preserve the unique role of the individual. This formulation provides central features of civic humanism, for personal development and philosophical orientation. The note of idealism is clear.

The second main reason for the stress on knowledge types in a given (democratic) decision context was given previously: knowledge autonomy based on key humanistic-philosophical ideas is essential for political decision-making, yet the influence of humanistic knowledge — of this type — is highly ambiguous in the US in this time. Civic humanism represents an alternate model, in contrast to the dominant knowledge model of the US. This indicates a certain “democratic knowledge problem,” as discussed in part 3.


3. A democratic knowledge problem

Knowledge autonomy as response to a “democratic knowledge problem”: this admittedly idealistic formulation rests on the view that the US has a dominant knowledge model; and the model does not favor alternatives like civic humanism of the type discussed. Part 3 develops this group of ideas, starting with the problem.

Stated in a general form, a “democratic knowledge problem”: the US citizen frequently has notable (intellectual) freedom without knowledge autonomy. This knowledge autonomy is taken to involve self-knowledge, understanding a social-political environment, and the relation of these two areas.

Knowledge autonomy indicates both a condition and a process, where an individual freely develops a substantial level of intellectual self-determination. This knowledge autonomy involves developing an individual interpretive context, as proposed in critical theory, and by the expression critical distance. For this effort in the present, the importance of understanding the dominant intellectual or knowledge model of the US, that of empirical science and its technical-economic “derivatives”, can hardly be overstated; as these figure so prominently in our major institutions, especially in education. Positivism has been and continues as a substantial influence in US institutional life. In view of this general situation, many forms of intellectual orientation can result. As particular examples, the individual might choose among the following:

  1. One might intellectually align more directly with the dominant model or its derivatives, as noted. For example, (stricter) empiricism or materialism.
  2. An alternative intellectual or philosophical alignment could be a more inclusive humanistic philosophy. For example: an orientation of rationalism, phenomenology, etc.

 The position here is that the individual should make their own decision about their intellectual orientation, based on a learning process of adequate explanation and knowledge. This means there is a (humanistic) philosophical baseline, which makes knowledge autonomy an understood and viable concept; and then an ongoing learning process to fulfill an individual sense of this knowledge autonomy. The individual should not be subject to mere assimilation to the dominant model and its derivatives without instruction; to find themselves “trained rather than educated” — even on a high technical level.

The goal of knowledge autonomy is not a matter of learning philosophical labels and their meaning. The implication of developing an interpretive context, as noted above, is a linkage between philosophical orientation and knowledge, including the informal knowledge of daily life; so that individuals have a better sense of knowledge types, and how these types relate to their own (developing) intellectual orientation. And as knowledge is continually developed in many areas, especially concerning technical areas and their immense social influence, knowledge autonomy also implies ongoing effort for anyone taking the idea seriously.

In view of these ideas concerning this “democratic knowledge problem”, a limited model is offered: a more integrative humanistic-philosophical pattern, as a limited attempt to harmonize the individual of broad “humanistic” intellectual-spiritual potential, and the dominant empirical science model and its derivative technical-economic rationality. The alternate model of civic humanism, discussed in part 2, is part of the background for this effort.

Even on a modest scale, this humanistic-philosophical pattern can serve as a foundation, to help establish an intellectual order for many forms of knowledge. Strict empiricism or positivism would reject this humanistic-philosophical pattern as not meeting knowledge standards4. It is therefore incorrect — literally self-defeating — to begin with a foundation of strict empiricism or positivism for knowledge autonomy as understood here. A more inclusive intellectual framework is required, in order for the individual to make their own decisions about knowledge. A few remarks are in order, then, on the subject of intellectual inclusiveness.

The US has no shortage of impressive intellectual authority figures and groups concerning science and technology. Their institutional presence and roles are very pronounced.

The picture is rather different in the area of humanistic concerns and philosophical knowledge. For many, humanistic or philosophic studies barely represent important areas at all — as demonstrated by the lack of serious and direct attention in US schools. One could remark that this represents a somewhat impoverished intellectual landscape — as we find a notable imbalance between the dominant and “socially less important” knowledge areas.

A consequence of this imbalance is there are no clear authorities, as in science, for humanistic philosophy — noting that we shifted to (knowledge) authority concerning the person as human being, the “human image” and human capacity; and also related knowledge in philosophy that could strengthen intellectual orientation beyond scientific studies. US “authority” in these areas is surely isolated at best. (This idea of humanistic knowledge is an issue of presence or availability, not of intellectual uniformity.)

These remarks lead to a summary idea: knowledge autonomy with a basis of humanistic philosophy underlines the capacity of the individual to act as their own limited authority — and to recognize authoritative sources in their development5. This text, of course, is directed to raising these important issues. One freely admits this is not a simple undertaking. Yet despite the clear challenges involved, the complex nature of the democratic knowledge problem can be discussed without great elaboration or detail. An introduction can be given for both orientation if the materials are new, or to stimulate reflection if the ideas are more familiar.


So as stated initially, our discussion area is civic humanism and political participation. For this area one might simply present conventional specialized subject materials. In view of the present US, however, we have insisted on a foundation of civic humanism, with a central idea of knowledge autonomy. The apparently simple idea of “free choice among alternatives” clearly implies far more complex knowledge demands. Thus discussion of these demands is taken as a necessary preface, a form of orientation for later, more specialized materials. This discussion places the individual at the center of judgment, as is necessary in a democratic setting. To be at the center, however, requires balanced knowledge; and suggests a kind of unity in complex variety. Keeping the individual as the center, as responsible authority, is both a pervasive goal and a form of presentation for the materials to follow this first preface text.



  1. Berlin, Isaiah. The Roots of Romanticism. (edited by Henry Hardy.) p. 2-3. (The A. W. Mellon lectures in the fine arts) Princeton University Press. Princeton, New Jersey. 1999.

The history not only of thought, but of consciousness, opinion, action too, of morals, politics, aesthetics, is to a large degree a history of dominant models. Whenever you look at any particular civilisation, you will find that its most characteristic writings and other cultural products reflect a particular pattern of life which those who are responsible for these writings or paint these paintings, or produce these particular pieces of music are dominated by. And in order to identify a civilisation, in order to explain what kind of civilisation it is, in order to understand the world in which men of this sort thought and felt and acted, it is important to try, so far as possible, to isolate the dominant pattern which that culture obeys. [Emphasis added]

Consider, for instance, Greek philosophy or Greek literature of the classical age. If you read, say, the philosophy of Plato, you will find that he is dominated by a geometrical or mathematical model. It is clear that his thought operates on lines which are conditioned by the idea that there are certain axiomatic truths, adamantine, unbreakable, from which it is possible by severe logic to deduce certain absolutely infallible conclusions; that it is possible to attain to this kind of absolute wisdom by a special method which he recommends; that there is such a thing as absolute knowledge to be obtained in the world, and if only we can attain to this absolute knowledge, of which geometry, indeed mathematics in general, is the nearest example, the most perfect paradigm, we can organise our lives in terms of this knowledge, in terms of these truths, once and for all, in a static manner, needing no further change; and then all suffering, all doubt, all ignorance, all forms of human vice and folly can be expected to disappear from the earth. [ … ]

This is one kind of model — I offer it simply as an example. These models invariably begin by liberating people from error, from confusion, from some kind of unintelligible world which they seek to explain to themselves by means of a model; but they almost invariably end by enslaving those very same people, by failing to explain the whole of experience. They begin as liberators and end in some sort of despotism.”

2. Whitehead, Alfred North. Science and the Modern World. Lowell Lectures, 1925. Cambridge University Press. From the Preface.

“The present book embodies a study of some aspects of Western culture during the past three centuries, in so far as it has been influenced by the development of science. This study has been guided by the conviction that the mentality of an epoch springs from the view of the world which is, in fact, dominant in the educated sections of the communities in question. There may be more than one such scheme, corresponding to cultural divisions. The various human interests which suggest cosmologies, and also are influenced by them, are science, aesthetics, ethics, religion. In every age each of these topics suggests a view of the world. In so far as the same set of people are swayed by all, or more than one, of these interests, their effective outlook will be the joint production from these sources. But each age has it dominant preoccupation; and, during the three centuries in question, the cosmology derived from science has been asserting itself at the expense of older points of view with their origins elsewhere. Men can be provincial in time, as well as in place. We may ask ourselves whether the scientific mentality of the modern world in the immediate past is not a successful example of such provincial limitation.” [Emphasis added]

From p. 3-4: “The thesis which these lectures will illustrate is that this quiet growth of science has practically re-coloured our mentality so that modes of thought which in former times were exceptional, are now broadly spread through the educated world. This new colouring of ways of thought had been proceeding slowly for many ages in the European peoples. At last it issued in the rapid development of science; and has thereby strengthened itself by its most obvious application. The new mentality is more important even than the new science and the new technology. It has altered the metaphysical presuppositions and the imaginative contents of our minds; so that now the old stimuli provoke a new response. [ … ]

It is this union of passionate interest in the detailed facts with equal devotion to abstract generalisation which forms the novelty in our present society. Previously it had appeared sporadically and as if by chance. This balance of mind has now become part of the tradition which infects cultivated thought. It is the salt which keeps life sweet. The main business of universities is to transmit this tradition as a widespread inheritance from generation to generation.”

Ricoeur, Paul. Éthique et politique. In: Autres Temps. Les cahiers du christianisme social. N°5, pp. 58-70. doi : 10.3406/chris.1985.1000 (http://www.persee.fr/web/revues/home/prescript/article/chris_0753-2776_1985_num_5_1_1000) About technical-economic rationality (rationalité techno-économique) — key features from Ricoeur’s text: The organized struggle against nature (lutte contre nature), the methodical organization of work, and rationalized relations between production, distribution, and consuming are central. The author stresses the abstract character of these features, describing the group as comprising an ‘abstract social mechanism’ (mécanisme social abstrait). Ricoeur contrasts the abstract social mechanism with the concept of a concrete ‘historical community’ (communauté historique), the social basis for rational political principles (rationalité politique). ”

3. Beutelsbacher Konsens. For the original German text: https://www.bpb.de/diebpb/51310/beutelsbacher-konsens

4. Positivism: “A philosophical and social scientific doctrine that upholds the primacy of sense experience and empirical evidence as the basis for knowledge and research. The term was coined by Auguste Comte to emphasize the doctrine’s rejection of value judgments, its privileging of observable facts and relationships, and the application of knowledge gained by this approach to the improvement of human society. [ … ] ” Source: Dictionary of the Social Sciences. Edited by Craig Calhoun. Oxford University Press. 2002. Online Version.

 Positivism: “The philosophy of Comte, holding that the highest or only form of knowledge is the description of sensory phenomena. Comte held that there were three stages of human belief: the theological, the metaphysical, and finally the positive, so-called because it confined itself to what is positively given, avoiding all speculation. Comte’s position is a version of traditional empiricism, without the tendencies to idealism or scepticism that the position attracts. In his own writings the belief is associated with optimism about the scope of science and the benefits of a truly scientific sociology. In the 19th century, positivism also became associated with evolutionary theory, and any resolutely naturalistic treatment of human affairs. Its descendants include the philosophy of Mach, and logical positivism.” [Emphasis added] Source: A Dictionary of Philosophy, (3 ed.) Simon Blackburn. Oxford University Press. 2016. Online Version.

5. “Kant’s Account of Reason”. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy online. See section 2.1, Freedom implies moral constraint in the form of the Categorical Imperative — especially remarks on autonomy, heteronomy, and authority. (https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/kant-reason/)


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