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Course Syllabi

Public Philosophy

Harry C. Boyte
University of Minnesota

Harry Boyte, Senior Fellow at the Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs
Co-director of the Center for Democracy and Citizenship

This course was designed for graduate students in public affairs. The course is structured around a 10 week session with classes meeting once a week for 3 hours, or twice a week for 90 minutes.

Class Description

It is not sufficient to train technically in the trades and crafts and arts to the end of securing greater economic efficiency. This may be accomplished in a despotism and result in no self-action on the part of the people.

Every democracy must reach far beyond what is commonly known as economic efficiency and do everything it can to enable those in the background to maintain their standing and their pride and to participate in the making of political affairs.

Liberty Hyde Bailey, The Holy Earth, 1915

Critics today voice alarm about Americans' civic disengagement and the dangers to democracy it poses. In 1958, 73 percent of the public said they trusted government in Washington to do what is right "just about always" or at least "most of the time." That has declined precipitously—only 13 percent of the people now have much faith in government at the federal level, and state and local government don't fare much better. The majority of Americans now think government creates more problems than it solves. A recent Times Mirror Center poll showed a sharp decline in support for public welfare programs. More broadly, scholars have documented decline in voluntary engagements, trust between neighbors, and faith in every major institution, from the media to religion and education.

In this climate, those planning careers in public affairs face daunting challenges that cannot be avoided. What is it exactly that you will be doing? What is the larger rationale of your work? What does public affairs have to do with democracy?

The Public Philosophy course will take up these questions. We will look at patterns and concepts of citizenship, public life, and public affairs over the course of American history. Especially, we will examine the tie between work and democracy, and the argument that it is the erosion of opportunities for work with larger public meaning and significance that has led to democracy's crisis.

In this vein, the course will explore in depth a subterranean but powerful strand of democratic theory and practice—what might best be called the "public work" tradition. This tradition, with roots in the 19th century, runs from the first years of the 20th century to our time. Progressives like Liberty Bailey, Dean of the College of Agriculture at Cornell and main philosopher of the cooperative extension system; Jane Addams, the pioneer of settlement house work; and W.E.B. Du Bois, the great black theorist of work and education, all argued that public work is the heart of democracy: work that produces things of lasting significance and meaning to the nation, work that is visible, open, and that involves a diverse mix of people.

They, and their successors in this tradition, would argue that professional work—including the work of public affairs professionals—should be understood in this context. Professionals are, at best, involved in the "great public work" of democratic renewal, not simply technicians, specialists, or service providers. Many others have built on such ideas and practices. Could their insights have a renewed and even more powerful relevance as we approach the 21th century? Or has America lost forever widespread practices of public work such as they proposed? Such questions will form main axes for discussion and debate throughout the quarter.

Required Readings

    Liberty Hyde Bailey, The State and the Farmer (New York: Macmillan, 1916)
    John Brunner, The Shockwave Rider (New York: Ballantine, 1975)
    Lizbeth Cohen, Making a New Deal (Cambridge: Cambridge University, 1990)
    Ralph Ellison, The Invisible Man (New York: McGraw, 1960)
    Sara Evans and Harry Boyte, Free Spaces (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1992)
    Robert Reich, Work of Nations (New York: Norton, 1992)
    Article packet


The grades for the course will be based on four elements:

    Weekly book and reading reviews; two short papers (25% of grade).

    Two short papers on your careers and citizenship; one on public work interview (25% of grade).

    Participation in class discussions (15% of grade).

    An action project, with two options (35% of grade). You may work in a practicum as a Public Achievement coach, which involves helping a team of youth (usually 5 - 10, ages 8 - 13) design a "public work" project in their school or community; or you may work as a team (3-4) with others in class, to observe and analyze the work dynamics in a public setting in the Twin Cities. In either case, students will write a concluding paper, 7-10 pages.


Week One: Goals for course, survey of student interests, background themes

Lecture: "Public Philosophy, Practical Theory, and Public Work"
Required readings: Boyte and Kari, "Meanings of Citizenship"

Week Two: The Classic Tradition in Political Thought

Lecture and discussion: "The Greek Legacy: What is democracy? What is politics?"
Discussion of readings
Two page paper on citizenship and public careers due

Required readings: Thucycides, "The 'Funeral Oration' of Pericles," in History of the Peloponnesian War
Ralph Ellison, The Invisible Man\

Week Three: The American Adaptation of Public Life

Lecture and discussion: "Bringing citizenship down to earth—19th century America and the culture of democratic talk and work"
Discussion of readings

Required Readings: Robert Wiebe, Chapter Three
James Madison, "Federalist Paper #10"
Sara Evans and Harry Boyte, Free Spaces, Chapters One, Two, Three

Week Four: Democracy in Industrializing America

Lecture and discussion: Public Work and the Transformation of American Democracy
Discussion of readings, prospectus on group projects

Required readings: Liberty Hyde Bailey, The Farmer and the State

Week Five: The Culture of Professionals

Lecture and discussion: "The Rise of The New Gentry: Power in the World of Expertise"
Discussion of readings, midcourse evaluation

Required readings:Walter Lippmann, "The Public and its Problems"
James Carey, "Journalists Just Leave"

Week Six: The Progressive State

Lecture and discussion: "Consumer Culture and the Age of the Machine,"
Public work interview papers due

Required Readings:
Lizbeth Cohen, Making a New Deal

Week Seven: Democratic countercurrents

Lecture and discussion: Public work in the Great Depression
Public work interview discussions

Required readings:
Saul Alinsky, "Community Traditions"
Free Spaces, Chapter 4

Week Eight: Consumerism, the Rise of the New Gentry, and Freedom

Lecture and discussion: The Consumer Culture of the 1950s, The Freedom Movements
Discussion of readings

Required readings:
Martin Luther King, "Letter from a Birmingham Jail"
Robert Reich, The Work of Nations

Week Nine: Liberalism in Crisis

Lecture and discussion: "Turning Jobs into Public Work"
Two page paper on citizenship and public service careers due

Required readings:
John Brunner, The Shockwave Rider
Joanne Cavallaro, "Renewal of Civic Life"

Week Ten: Public Work

Project presentations

Week of December 4: Project reports due (written reports due 12/8/95)

Course assignments

The grades for the course will be based on four elements:

1) Weekly book reports (25% of grade). Each participant is expected to write a one page book report each week, covering readings for that week. Print enough copies for all members of the class (you will collate into a weekly journal). The report should integrate reflections on the reading with ideas or themes picked up from class discussions. What is the central argument of each work? What is your evaluation of the persuasiveness of the arguments? What does this have to do with public work?

2) Three short papers (25% of grade). In the second and ninth week of the course, two page papers are due that express your thoughts between your identity as a "citizen" and your future work as a public affairs professional. In the sixth week, a two page paper is due based on interviewing someone (preferably in work far different than yours) about the meaning and public contributions they make through their work.

3) Participation in class discussions (15% of grade). Each participant is expected to discuss the themes, ideas and projects in the class.

4) Action Project (35% of grade). Students may work as a Public Achievement coach in a practicum with younger students, teaching public life and public affairs concepts as you help them design a "public work" project. If you choose this option you will also be working with students from several other classes at the U and at the College of St. Catherine; this option will introduce students who choose it to some of the challenges and pleasures of "teaching public work"—the concepts and outlook of work that has public significance (in this case unpaid, but nonetheless public, hard, product-oriented effort) to young people.

As an alternative, you may work with a team of students in this class (three to four) to observe and analyze the work dynamics of a public setting of some kind in the Twin Cities (asking questions not normally asked such as, how do people understand the larger meaning and significance of their work? How are larger ideas and discussions infused into their work lives?) Each of these observation teams will make a class presentation; Public Achievement coaches have the option of making a class presentation, for extra credit.

All final reports are due December 8.