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 Georgia College Public Achievement eGuide


The Language of Democracy

The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching published "Educating for Democracy: Preparing Undergraduates for Responsible Political Involvement", Anne Colby et. al. in 2007. The Introduction raises a provocative issue as the authors assert that "too few colleges invite students – or even most faculty and staff – to consider seriously the multiple purposes of higher education, including its public and democratic purposes. This is unfortunate: institutions of higher education have critical roles to play in helping ensure the vitality and evolution of our culture and democratic system, and preparing students as thoughtful, responsible, creative citizens is an essential element in this." (p. 2) The authors' constructive criticism suggests that democratic and political language has been overshadowed by the pursuit of disciplinary expertise and an increasingly technocratic approach to higher education.

Other scholars argue that a new democratic language is necessary as a means to providing ordinary citizens, including undergraduate and graduate students, access to the political process. Harry Boyte, "The Citizen Solution" and "Everyday Politics", Frances Lappe, "Democracy's Edge", and Paul Rogat Loeb, "Soul of a Citizen" offer both access to and descriptions of citizen activism through stories or public narrative. These stories result in revising the terminology we use to understand democracy and citizenship.

Boyte offers several critical questions and three descriptive categories with the civic agency column as the model to which Public Achievement aspires.




Civic Agency

What is democracy?

Elections, Representation

Moral order

Way of life rooted in vibrant places

What is the citizen?



Civic producer

What is citizenship?

Voting, obeying the law, respecting others' rights 

Helping others,

Public work

What is the central task?

Fair distribution

Creating community

Developing civic agency

What are key methods?



Civic organizing/coaching Credentialing multiple kinds of knowledge
Cultural organizing

What is higher education's civic role?

Expert knowledge
Expert service
Social criticism

Moral education

To free the powers of people and places, develop citizen professionals (

What is power?

Power over

Power with

Power to

What is out vision?

Just society

Good society

Commonwealth of freedom


Harry C. Boyte, 2009
Boyte, ADP, Baltimore, June 13, 2009

"Living Democracy is a new way of seeing ourselves and our world – a new frame, as linguists would say. Knowing that words shape perceptions and expectations, we can consciously generate language that communicates what is emerging and what we want to bring into being. It takes work!" (p. 321), wrote by Frances Moore Lappe writes in the appendix of "Democracy's Edge",  Lappe illustrates by suggesting 26 currently used terms, the problematic connotations often associated with the words, and several more accurate alternatives. For example, democracy connotes a limitation to voting and government. Living Democracy, on the other hand, is a "way of life that includes economic democracy and assumes citizen participation." (p. 321) Minimum wage is a technical term that ignores the human condition contrasted to "poverty wage versus living wage." Regulation is often understood as big, top-down, intrusive government and inefficiency contrasted to standards that "protect ownership diversity, competition, health, and the environment; public protections; and values boundaries around the market." (p. 323)

And finally, Paul Rogat Loeb infuses democracy with soul, the soul of citizens. The very title of his popular book, "Soul Of A Citizen", the second edition of which was published in 2010, offers an organic, living, breathing image to democracy which is often approached as theoretical and conceptual. In his introduction to the most recent edition, he quotes Rabbi Hillel who "asked 2000 years ago, if we are not for ourselves, what are we? Whoever we are, and whatever paths we follow, we can all lead lives worthy of our convictions." (p. 19)

Public Achievement offers students and practitioners a new frame, language, and soul with which to engage democracy and public work while advancing their academic proficiency. We want students to see themselves as citizen scientists, citizen educators, citizen nurses, and citizens of every discipline and vocation. If indeed, ordinary citizens can do extraordinary things, it will take a fresh approach to active citizenship. Public Achievement offers a meaningful opportunity to become engaged.

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