A Civil Discussion

Precise definition of 'civil society' eludes faculty on panel, but they agree academia has a large role to play

By Mark Sullivan
Staff Writer

At an Oct. 27 interdisciplinary colloquium on the university's role in civil society, professors and administrators agreed they have vital roles to play in bettering the common good. But opinions varied widely on the definition and nature of "civil society," let alone how to fix it.

More than 35 faculty and staff gathered at Barat House for the provocative day-long colloquium on the question, "What is the Role of the University in Fostering Civil Society?"

Planners billed the colloquium as an opportunity for a day of "good conversation" on the future of civil society, broadly understood as the sphere between business and government, or the system of relatively self-governing organizations where people settle their own problems responsibly in daily life.

Discussion at the outset of the colloquium centered on the very definition of "civil society." Consensus was not readily reached in the wide-ranging dialogue that followed among academics of various disciplines, from business and economics to education, law and sociology.

"What are we talking about here?" said Prof. Charles Derber (Sociology). "The building of generic forms of community? The nature of morality? The ethos of care? [Civil society] is one of those seductive and slippery concepts that eludes definition."

Assoc. Prof. Harold Petersen (Economics) suggested, "What we're trying to achieve here is the good society - the common good."

Countered Prof. Kay Schlozman (Political Science): "The safest society may not be the most free society. We may not all agree what the good society is."

Participants generally agreed, however, that academia has a distinct role to play in fostering civil society - even if they could not necessarily agree on just what that civil society is.

Associate Vice President for Research and Graduate School of Arts and Sciences Dean Michael Smyer urged a continued focus on the instruction of students in ethics, citing Boston College's pledge in its mission statement to pursue "a just society."

David McMenamin, director of the Philosophy Department's PULSE Program, cautioned that the academy must carefully examine its notion of the virtues it would set out to foster in the larger community.

"The educational mission is to help define justice and morality," McMenamin said. "If the ends are not understood, the 'pursuit of civil society' becomes just watching how it happens, not a participation."

A common chord was struck by Allen Fairfax, a doctoral student in the Sociology Department, when he described his experience in the field with the Merrimack Valley Project.

Fairfax' description of his work as an academic researcher for the community organization was received with interest by those at the colloquium as a real-life model of academic involvement in community improvement efforts.

"Academics come in posing as experts, and are perceived as coming in on a data raid," said Fairfax. "It takes work to overcome that view.

"We need to listen and to participate before even offering suggestions, before even offering models," he said. "There is a feeling among community groups that we do not listen enough."

Assoc. Prof. Paul Gray (Sociology) praised the insight Fairfax offered from the field. "While we're in a room trying to figure out what it is, people are living a 'civil society,'" Gray said.

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