The LSA Theme Year, 2006-2007: The Theory and Practice of Citizenship: From the Local to the Global
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Theme years and semesters come in different sizes and shapes—sometimes as grassroots initiatives, sometimes to mark a significant occasion or anniversary, and sometimes from instigation by the institution. The LSA theme year on Citizenship, entitled The Theory and Practice of Citizenship: From the Local to the Global, was proposed by Terry McDonald (Dean of LSA) as a year-long series of events exploring the theme. He recruited a steering committee to take the lead, and remained engaged with the project throughout the year.
The theme itself was deliberately broad, and it was clear from the outset that limited associations of the word “citizenship” with elections and voting booths had to be set aside. Conventional conceptions of citizenship—understood as the rights and responsibilities held by members of a political community—have changed dramatically during the last quarter century. The increasing significance of human rights in our global imagination, as well as the puzzles of planetary sustainability, require us to consider obligations beyond political boundaries. With increases in the mobility of capital, the power of information and communications technologies, and the velocity of travel and TV, local worlds have both shrunk and expanded at the same time. The sharpening of religious, racial, and ethno-nationalist differences as the basis of political entitlement have placed whole peoples at risk of violence and exclusion. The unsettlement of peoples, their mass migrations, and insecure status, have created large populations, especially in urban areas, caught in between places and without protections. Traditional categories of citizenship, based on nationhood, have been amended and redefined, while inherited practices of citizenship have been both significantly attenuated and dramatically extended.
The University of Michigan is a vital space for this re-visioning of citizenship and the reformulation of notions of the public good. It is a protected sphere of open inquiry, in which the risks and new possibilities of citizenship can be studied and debated in non-partisan but engaged ways. It produces new knowledge and competencies that can inform both the scholarly understanding of problems and develop new strategies for effective engagement. The university is itself a citizen with an influential role in the world, nation, state, and local community.
In assembling and coordinating the myriad of theme semester activities laid out on our website (www.lsa.umich.edu/citizenship), we have sought to promote multi-dimensional conversations to expand the breadth of analysis and intellectual investigation into the theme, but also to empower direct action and meaningful participation. As the theme year comes to a close, we are devising ways to promote more critical reflection on the role and the capacity of the university to create and sustain conditions for effective civil engagement. We brought to campus U-M alumni with long experience in civic life to meet with undergraduate students to discuss the realities and rewards of active, lifelong citizenship, and we sponsored a number of symposia to address the role of the public university in the public sphere. While it is not possible to bundle the many threads of this theme into a single conclusion, we hope that the year has contributed something to the revitalization of public life, and has broadened our understanding of our rights and responsibilities in the global condition of the twenty-first century.
Charlie Bright is director of the Residential College and professor of history at U-M.