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Civic Connections Power Professor’s Work

Political Scientist Ben Berger Pounds the Pavement and the Podium as He Encourages Community Action

By Carol Brévart-Demm

This year, as he did four years ago, Associate Professor of Political Science Ben Berger is teaching his students about the electoral process not only in class but also on the streets. “We’re doing voter registration, and students also have an option to work with campaigns of their choice—whether local, state, national, Republican, Democrat—or to work with community partners outside of the political system,” he says. Driving students to surrounding communities so they can walk door to door encouraging residents to vote is another activity he anticipates during every election year as part of his community-based learning class, Democratic Theory and Practice.

“I’ll be out there walking around, participating in nonpartisan voter registration, and I’ve joined in poll watching too, but I leave the actual canvassing to the students,” he says. “I’m active politically on my own, but I don’t want students to feel any pressure to follow my partisan commitments. Democracy involves freedom of thought, after all.”


The first week of classes, Professor Ben Berger leads his Democratic Theory and Practice class, which had a community leader, Duane Belgrave, as a guest lecturer. Photos by Laurence Kesterson

This November, Berger is particularly interested in seeing the results of the youth vote after its staggering drop in the 2010 midterm elections. There are many indications that young people’s avid interest in 2008 was motivated by Obama’s rock-star allure, he says.

But the public attention span has not been sustained.

“When something new and fabulous didn’t materialize each new day, interest fell off,” Berger says. “It’s difficult to remain a rock star when you’re doing the dirty business of governing, and it isn’t just about promise but performance—though not all the performance has been within Obama’s control,” Berger says.

“That’s one of the tricky aspects of attention,” Berger continues. “When you attract attention by appealing to people’s tastes, tastes are fickle. You have a really hard time holding people’s attention unless the people actually form habits of engagement, which Obama’s newly mobilized younger voters in 2008 didn’t have. It will be interesting to see whether those young voters can be turned back on or whether they turn off—or even make a conservative turn.”

Berger explored the subject of political engagement—and disengagement—in his 2011 book Attention Deficit Democracy: The Paradox of Civic Engagement. Writing of the prerequisites for a successful democracy, he took issue with the widely used term “civic engagement.” That buzzword, he says, encompasses “political participation, social connectedness, associational membership, volunteerism, and community spirit” yet clarifies none of them and may actually confuse our conversations about making democracy work. Berger proffered alternative descriptors—“political,” “social,” and “moral” forms of engagement, which can occur together but often do not—as more explicit and meaningful. Understanding that citizens have limited attention and energy, we should be asking which kinds of engagement we should promote, and in what ways, he believes.

Berger’s work received the 2011 Book of the Year award from the North American Society for Social Philosophy. It was also included on the list of Top 10 nonfiction books of 2011 published by Zócalo Public Square, a nonpartisan think tank that seeks to promote understanding of how diverse societies cohere.

Berger also brings his investigation of democracy into the classroom. His Democratic Theory and Practice students read classic theories of democracy and also contemporary scholarship about the current state of democracy in America, and assess the ways in which social connectedness, economic resources, and educational attainment can affect citizens’ experience of democracy. Students engage outside the classroom with civic leaders and activists, learning about democracy “on the ground” by undertaking projects in the adjacent but quite different communities of Swarthmore and Chester.

A frequent visitor and participant in class discussions is Duane Belgrave—a professor, minister, and community leader who, as a doctoral student at Emory University, studied with President Rebecca Chopp, and co-founded the Black Religious Scholars Group. “Dr. Belgrave and I help students reflect on their out-of-class experiences and relate them to their more traditional academic readings,” Berger says.

Swarthmore Mayor Rick Lowe typically leads the class on a tour through the borough and gives students an introduction to local government, although this year, with Lowe unavailable, Borough President Susan Smythe is conducting the tour. Students attend the Chester 101 orientation organized by Cynthia Jetter, director of community partnerships and planning for the Lang Center for Civic and Social Responsibility, and by Chester community partners, and they attend a Swarthmore Borough Council meeting as well as a Chester City Council meeting (after which they traditionally meet with the Chester mayor). Additional classroom visitors include community leaders such as Ulysses “Butch” Slaughter, a nationally recognized expert on violence and reconciliation, founder of The Odyssey Project, and consultant to the Chester Housing Authority.


From left: Seniors Bernie Koch, BaLeigh Marie Harper, and Soul Han chat with Professor Berger.

In addition to providing opportunities for political engagement through campaigns and voter registration, Berger also connects students with nonpolitical community projects such as the Chester Youth Courts, a youth-empowerment program at Chester High School that helps to train high school students in law and civics, leadership skills, and youth court procedure.

“My students choose their projects by affinity, not by assignment, and they volunteer for several hours a week—outside the classroom, in the youth courts, in the community, at campaign offices, whichever venue they choose,” Berger explains.

Students in Berger’s honors seminar, Democratic Theory and Civic Engagement in America, receive pointers from visiting civic leaders and activists as they explore the challenges and necessity of making democracy work better. Speakers this semester include Swarthmore businessman Ben Brake, a board member of The Chester Fund for Education and the Arts who has also been integrally involved in Professor John Alston’s Chester Charter School for the Arts; Vice President for Community Relations Maurice Eldridge ’61, a founding member of the Chester Charter School’s board of trustees; Ken Klothen ’73, a lawyer and bioethicist who has served in federal, state, and local government; and Don Delson, publisher of The Swarthmorean, vice president of the Swarthmore Co-op, and like Eldridge, a founding trustee of the Chester Charter School.

Drawing on President Chopp’s language, Berger describes the visitors as “just people who have jobs and families and are living liberal arts lives, finding ways to lead incredible community projects in addition to their many other commitments. Our community is full of people who know how to put their values into action, and they can help to instruct and inspire our students,” he says.

Adds Berger, “this is an attempt to show the broader spectrum of community-based learning, a goal that Lang Center Executive Director Joy Charlton and I both share. It doesn’t all have to be done outside of the classroom, as long as students find ways to apply their attention, energy, and knowledge to real-world problems affecting their communities.”

More than just a popular teacher, Berger has a reputation for being an inspirational research adviser. Political science honors major Jesse Dashevsky ’13 was excited at the prospect of participating this fall in his first honors seminar with Berger.

“For the last two summers, I’ve had the privilege to work as Ben’s research assistant,” Dashevsky says. “Our project has been to model the ways people become morally engaged in their communities and national politics and how that’s distinct from other forms of engagement—complex stuff indeed, but with Ben’s breadth of knowledge, unflagging curiosity, and endless supply of illustrative anecdotes drawn from The Simpsons, the challenge is never too daunting. His work has been a model for my own and his guidance invaluable as I look forward to my career as a political scientist.”

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