First published 05/26/17
By Douglas Schuler from The Evergreen State College
As everybody knows, a person who readily solves problems is intelligent. Fine. But what about groups, societies, countries, and international bodies that successfully solve problems collectively — especially problems that are significant in the wider sphere? I looked for the name of this group phenomenon for some time before determining that there was no one word in common usage. I finally settled on one that seemed to provide the most accurate name for this important capability: civic intelligence.
People from Aristotle to John Dewey and far beyond have been discussing this vital feature for centuries, but it seemed to lack a name. Why is a name important? For one thing when something has a name that people know, then those people can talk about that thing. Without the name it’s much harder. And without a name a phenomenon is “impervious to cognitive development” as Giovanni Sartori noted. And we want to think about civic intelligence, we do want to develop it cognitively. And, of course, we want to act on it, too. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
While my teaching at the Evergreen State College has always been related to civic intelligence I’ve been consciously and explicitly applying the concept over the past 10 years or so. I define civic intelligence as the ability of groups of all sizes to address the challenges they face effectively and equitably. Over the last five years I’ve been convening the Civic Intelligence Research and Action Laboratory (CIRAL) at Evergreen (sometimes with another faculty member). CIRAL was the result of our (students and faculty) attempt to incorporate and cultivate civic intelligence in academia in a civically intelligent way. This means that it should encourage civic intelligence in students as well as within the broader community. And it should be sustainable. It should persist over time.
The basic idea was that one learns about civic intelligence not only by reading and writing and talking about it but by actually doing it. This realization provided the core premise for our CIRAL enterprise: All of the projects within the lab must incorporate both research and practice. In general this builds on the fact that project-based education has many important virtues that traditional education doesn’t offer. One of the most important aspects from my standpoint is the development of self-efficacy — the belief in one’s own potential to accomplish things and to think big. “One of the things that I like so much about CIRAL” according to one student, “is the sense of limitless possibility.”
Several years ago, at our first meeting as a lab, we realized that we needed to organize into groups with common goals and interests which we called clusters. Since that day we’ve had dozens of clusters including CIRAL vs. Homelessness, Collaborative Education, Civic Intelligence Games, Solarize Tacoma, Veterans Support, Food Systems, Evergreen Revival, Citizenship Schools, Community Health, Anti-Patterns, Tribal Education, Incarceration and Mental Health, Youth Empowerment, Boma Design, CIRALCasts, Sustainable Architecture, and many more. Over the years many projects were developed by the clusters including a survey on homelessness at Evergreen, working on the city-wide homelessness count, panel discussions on starting non-profits and how to address homelessness, web-sites, site visits to prisons for youth and adults, video documentary on community health on campus, business plan, games, student body constitutions, community garden plans, articles of incorporation for a new non-profit organization, repairs to the roof of a community shelter and solar panels on campus roofs, and CEAzine, the periodical in which this article appears!
Over the course of convening the lab we developed the rules for the lab as we went along. Sometimes the norms we explicitly adopted were based on observations about what we were doing that seemed to be important to our mission and what moved us forward practically. Three important guidelines were identified in this way. First, was that students were basically in charge of the projects, from conception through realization and evaluation. Second, projects should be orchestrated by groups, not individuals. Third, students should internalize their role as active and empowered members of the lab. The lab shows more civic intelligence when students own the lab.
When the lab was launched I committed to convening it every quarter until I retired. And because that time is now upon us, the idea of what comes next is very topical. The idea of extending CIRAL beyond the lab is not new. In fact it has been a topic of discussion ever since the beginning. Some students have suggested that an entire college could be developed around the concept, while others have said this should be part of elementary school education. The idea of institutionalizing the lab at Evergreen is also a perennial topic. In fact the students and I have been promoting the idea at Evergreen in various ways. I created one proposal which was distributed to several deans and the standing committee on the curriculum while another one was developed by a student. The basic idea of the faculty-developed proposal, was that multiple research and action laboratories (basically CIRAL-like entities), each one staffed by revolving faculty members, should be established at Evergreen. They would probably have somewhat different foci, such as sustainability and justice, environmental science, etc. but students in one could collaborate with students in others and a forum for the liaisons from each lab would meet periodically. Unfortunately it hasn’t been easy to get a good hearing for the idea even at Evergreen whose educational philosophy and values may call for this type of approach more than any other college in the U.S. As one student remarked, “I truly believe that CIRAL embodies the ethic and philosophy of The Evergreen State College.” And another: “… of the models I have been involved with [At Evergreen] CIRAL is the most experimental, student driven and collaborative approach to putting thought into action.”
What do we mean by CIRAL Forever? The ideas that were embedded into CIRAL existed long before CIRAL came into being and the ideas will continue on for years after CIRAL. But CIRAL is explicitly focused on civic intelligence and this means that CIRAL must be sustained and it must grow over time if it is to remain relevant.
CIRAL offers a seed for ongoing social innovation. This is shown on an individual level: “In one quarter I experienced a paradigm shift that likely would not have happened outside the CIRAL environment. I can legitimately say I’m a better person as a direct result of the CIRAL experience.” But here I am arguing for something like CIRAL in many locations and contexts. CIRAL is comprised of “clusters” that are formed around themes. The clusters are free (and, indeed, encouraged) to pursue their own inquiries and their own actions. But this approach is not uniquely suited for the Evergreen State College. The cluster may in fact be the smallest unit of collective empowered engagement. As such it is extremely flexible. It is about as non-constraining as it could be, thus giving its members freedom to do things how they see fit. It also means that members of clusters can be at a variety of locations, including but not limited to institutions of higher education. Hence the idea of CIRAL Forever in which the idea is carried forward whether or not it is carried form in its original form in its original setting.
Recent activities in the world outside academia remind us that academia is not separate from the rest of the social or material world. As problems such as environmental degradation and social inequality continue to advance, the need for approaches that integrate theory and practice become essential. I’d like to see community CIRALs and CIRALs that connect higher education to communities, as well as CIRAL to CIRAL collaboration. The seed that helped create CIRAL is extremely versatile. We believe that it’s easy to build on and extend and adapt. CIRAL is open and flexible but it contains a variety of significant features whose interplay can result in deeper social engagement in theoretical and practical ways. Plant the seed in different soils and the results will vary. Hopefully the flowers that grow from that seed will all be beautiful.
CIRAL Handbook, containing ground-rules for the lab and testimonials from students.
How civic intelligence can teach what it means to be a citizen, opinion piece on civic intelligence, particularly in an educational setting.
About the Author
For over 30 years Douglas Schuler has written and organized projects around civic intelligence, the critical capability that societies rely for their survival. Doug has presented around the world on democratic, equitable, and sustainable uses of technology. In 1987 Doug co-founded the Seattle Community Network, an all-volunteer, free public access computer network. Doug is former chair of Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility and is currently director of the Public Sphere Project. Doug is also the author, co-author, and co-editor of numerous articles, book chapters, and books including Liberating Voices: A Pattern Language for Communication Revolution (MIT Press). Doug has taught interdisciplinary programs related to civic intelligence at The Evergreen State College for the past 21 years. With your help Doug will continue this work after his imminent retirement from Evergreen in June!