Harvard Educational Review
  1. Winter 1996 Issue »

    The Spirit of Community: Rights, Responsibilities, and the Communitarian Agenda

    By Amitai Etzioni
    New York: Crown, 1993. 323 pp. $22.00.

    The notion of community occupies a privileged place in contemporary discussions of societal improvement. Those on opposing sides of numerous ideological divides proclaim the importance of strengthening communities. Specific communities and plans for organizing them, however, reflect particular commitments, and when discussion turns to the nature of these commitments, much of this consensus vanishes.

    It is within this setting that the ideas and ideals of Amitai Etzioni, the founder of the "communitarian movement," have received tremendous attention and support from academics, politicians, and the public. His recent treatise, The Spirit of Community: Rights, Responsibilities, and the Communitarian Agenda, details both the rationale for the communitarian agenda and its content. His populist vision is of a nation working together in a manner that reflects societal needs as well as personal goals. Etzioni demonstrates the value of reframing policy discussions and moral discourse around the connection between rights and responsibilities. He argues that "too often the dominant interests are not those of major segments of the population [but of] groups that represent narrow, self-serving goals, such as parking lot owners . . . beehive owners . . . or sugar farmers . . ." (p. 14). He also believes that we "require a set of social virtues, some basic settled values, that we as a community endorse and actively affirm" (p. 25). The power of this new frame is reflected in the support it has garnered from individuals and groups with a broad range of political commitments. Indeed, what distinguishes Etzioni from other intellectuals who emphasize community has been his strong ties to the political process. Both he and members of his movement have advised presidents and members of Congress. His supporters include Al Gore, Bill Bradley, and Jack Kemp.

    Although Etzioni's communitarian message is apparent, the normative choices embedded in his plan are not. Specifically, issues of social and cultural diversity, the need to protect the voices of a society's marginal thinkers, and the importance of reflective and critical dialogues are noted by Etzioni in The Spirit of Community, but the challenges they imply for his agenda are never fully explored. When one assesses his broad vision and his educational plan as outlined in chapter three, "The Communitarian School," his inattention to democratic goals becomes clear.

    Democratic schools, like democratic societies, require respect for diversity and forums for deliberation among those with different perspectives. Etzioni's neglect of these democratic values is manifest in his educational priorities. He emphasizes the transmission of relatively fixed collections of knowledge, skills, and character traits. Schools can promote "cognitive development," he argues, by "passing on information and skills" (p. 89). This task is made difficult, however, because children enter school "with their characters undeveloped and without a firm commitment to values" (p. 89). Consequently, schools must also focus on character formation and moral education. Indeed, he writes, "if the moral infrastructure of our communities is to be restored, schools will have to step in where the family, neighborhoods, and religious institutions have been failing" (p. 89). To do this, educators must tie "gratification to the development of qualities that are socially useful and morally appropriate" (p. 92).

    For Etzioni, such goals are relatively straightforward. When discussing "character formation," he writes: "There is little mystery as to what proper character development entails" (p. 91). It entails developing self-control — "the capacity to control one's impulse and to mobilize oneself for acts other than the satisfaction of biological needs and immediate desires" (p. 91). Similarly, in an effort to avoid the contentious issues that surround moral education, he writes that communitarians hope only to promote the "numerous values we share as a community — such as the inappropriateness of racial and gender discrimination, the rejection of violence, and the desirability of treating others with love, respect, and dignity" (p. 97).

    Are these goals as straightforward as Etzioni implies? On an abstract level, citizens of the United States may oppose discrimination, violence, and disrespect, but no consensus exists regarding the social implications of these commitments. Vague and widely endorsed rhetoric criticizing discrimination does not remove the need for informed public discussion regarding the desirability of various forms of affirmative action. A belief that violent actions should be an approach of last resort does not imply consensus regarding the contexts in which violent acts are justified. Finally, broad-based support for treating people with love and respect does not tell us how to design welfare policy.

    In terms of democratic ideals, Etzioni's vision has two main problems. First, it downplays the diversity of perspectives that surround moral and political matters and the ways value commitments structure the pursuit and interpretation of the issues and events we study. He hesitates to recognize the legitimacy of conflict and the need for informed and critical dialogue. This approach is conservative because it fails to recognize challenges to dominant beliefs. The emphasis on transmission also privileges the values of those who control the curriculum and constrains the creation of educational settings that reflect the voices of participants — their values, interests, and needs. Second, Etzioni's view de-emphasizes practices of critical analysis, negotiation, and deliberation — skills educators must develop in students if they want to enable informed and democratic collaboration among individuals with diverse perspectives.

    These weaknesses in his educational plan also constitute the central weakness of his overall vision. He rightly identifies the need for citizens to build shared purposes and values, but he specifies neither the processes for maintaining this sense of unity in diverse contexts nor the processes for ensuring continual critical reflection on the purposes and values prevalent within the community. Democratic communities require respect for differences as well as identification of common values. Etzioni's model suggests common values and information, yet his approach fails to develop the skills citizens need to deal with conflicts that naturally arise when members of a diverse community engage important issues.

    To say that Etzioni is not attentive to processes that promote democratic communities is not to say that he rejects this as a goal. The Communitarian Platform, a document authored principally by Etzioni, has many democratic leanings. For example, the conclusion of the platform states:

    This is only a beginning. This platform is but a point of dialogue, part of an ongoing process of collaboration. It should be viewed not as a series of final conclusions, but as ideas for additional discussion. (p. 267)

    Unfortunately, Etzioni's book does not help to advance this discussion. He provides no plan or mechanisms for creating meaningful forums for deliberation. He recommends that concerned citizens meet and discuss issues, he proposes that city planners "provide people shared space to mingle" (p. 128), but he proposes little or nothing about the nature of these conversations or about the dynamics that permit dialogue and action when consensus cannot be reached.

    Consider, for example, Etzioni's position on "social justice" (p. 144). It has four components: "First, people have the moral responsibility to help themselves as best they can. . . . The second line of responsibility lies with those closest to the person, including kin, friends, neighbors, and other community members" (p. 144). Third, "as a rule every community ought to be expected to do the best it can to take care of its own" (p. 146). Finally, "societies (which are nothing but communities of communities) must help those communities whose ability to help their members is severely limited" (p. 146).

    Both the implications of this framework for policy and the implications of the resulting policies for society are likely to draw substantial debate among members of a community. The debate would be valuable and fully consistent with democratic processes. The need for this discussion, ways to make it of high quality, and ways community members can move towards action even when consensus fails to materialize are never discussed by Etzioni. Rather, he simply describes each component and their implications as though they were self-evident, thereby obscuring the complex questions his proposal raises.

    This shortcoming, however, does not negate Etzioni's central contribution. His rhetoric of rights and responsibilities is compelling. He clearly identifies a challenge for educators and policymakers to develop an understanding of citizens' responsibilities in their relations to their rights. It frequently seems as though individuals believe it is their right to decide whether or not to be responsible, and Etzioni helps us understand the costs of this orientation. He proposes, for example, that all youth perform a year of national service after high school as an "antidote to the ego-centered mentality," as a means of providing meaningful social service, and as "a grand sociological mixer . . . for developing shared values and bonds among people from different racial, class, and regional backgrounds" (pp. 113–114). This is a compelling suggestion that, if it results in opportunities for youth to critically assess social needs and the impact of their service, could be a powerful and democratic educational experience.1

    Etzioni's strongest attack focuses on radical individualists — on libertarians and members of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) who argue against any constraints placed on individuals even when such constraints might have substantial benefits for a community. He highlights the degree to which our individualistic and rights-oriented culture makes it difficult to articulate or at times even to imagine that citizens have responsibilities to one another and to their shared society. Sobriety checkpoints, anti-loitering laws, baggage checks at airports, or drug testing for school bus drivers, Etzioni writes, "entail a small contribution by each of us, typically a minor inconvenience, and provide a major benefit for all of us" (p. 168). Similarly, he provides a powerful analysis of campaign finance practices and of the need for reform. Well-financed lobbyists' right to influence political decisions must be checked, Etzioni argues, because of a community's right to a democratic process guided by the views of citizens rather than by the money of special interest groups. He also provides a clear critique of approaches to moral education, such as "values clarification" exercises that, in their effort to protect children's right to any opinion, may teach students that all opinions are of equal stature.

    Etzioni frames his argument and orients his rationale in terms of the critiques he imagines those committed to individual rights might raise. He makes a significant contribution by considering ways to act collectively, focusing on "values, responsibilities, institutions, and communities" without charging "into a dark tunnel of moralism and authoritarianism that leads to a church-dominated state or a right-wing world" (p. 2).

    Even if there is agreement, however, with his proposals for sobriety checkpoints, recycling, knowing CPR, and being a responsible neighbor, it is likely that consensus will not be reached when talk turns to more controversial issues such as homelessness, taxes, welfare, the environment, gender equity, or gay rights. Etzioni is right to argue that individuals must address these issues as a community rather than as voters with competing interests. However, when Etzioni's challenge is presented to educators or policymakers with no recognition of the need to democratically negotiate definitions of rights and responsibilities among diverse citizens, then his rhetoric is problematic. This process can serve to obscure the legitimate views of marginal or less powerful actors.

    It is significant that Etzioni chose a red, white, and blue cover for his book. It is significant that the book's index does not include the word democracy. Etzioni promotes a promising and important vision of communal attachment, of the costs of overemphasizing individual rights, and of the need to promote civic responsibility. The implications of these goals, however, are not self-evident. His book's main weakness is that it understates the diversity of our society and the need to negotiate varied understandings of rights and responsibilities while maintaining communal ties.

    University of Illinois-Chicago

    1 See Joseph Kahne and Joel Westheimer, "In the Service of What? The Politics of Service Learning," Phi Delta Kappan, 77 (1996), 593–599.
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    Winter 1996 Issue


    The Colonizer/Colonized Chicana Ethnographer
    Identity, Marginalization, and Co-optation in the Field
    By Sofia Villenas
    "To Take Them at Their Word"
    Language Data in the Study of Teachers' Knowledge
    By Donald Freeman
    Inclusion, School Restructuring, and the Remaking of American Society
    By Dorothy Kerzner Lipsky and Alan Gartner
    Sustained Inquiry in Education
    Lessons from Skill Grouping and Class Size
    By Frederick Mosteller, Richard J. Light and Jason A. Sachs

    Book Notes

    Saving Our Sons
    By Marita Golden

    This Is How We Live and Tapori

    Wasting America's Future: The Children's Defense Fund Report on the Cost of Child Poverty
    By Arloc Sherman; Introduction by Marian Wright Edelman; Foreword by Robert M. Solow

    Blacked Out
    By Signithia Fordham

    Works about John Dewey 1886–1995
    Edited by Barbara Levine

    By Matthew Lipman

    Diversity in Higher Education
    By Caryn McTighe Musil, with Mildred Garcia, Yolanda Moses, and Daryl G. Smith

    Handbook of Qualitative Research
    Edited by Norman K. Denzin and Yvonna S. Lincoln.

    Commissions, Reports, Reforms, and Educational Policy
    Edited by Rick Ginsberg and David N. Plank.

    The Multilevel Design
    By Harry J. M. Huttner and Pieter van den Eeden.

    Search and Seizure in the Public Schools (Second Edition)
    By Lawrence F. Rossow and Jacqueline A. Stefkovich

    Call 1-800-513-0763 to order this issue.