Civic Virtues for Work and Action

“Citizenship is the struggle, carried out through conversation, to achieve accounts of the world that accord with norms of friendship and provide grounds for action.”
—Danielle Allen


College students in America are experiencing what might be called a widespread “depoliticization” of our society. With high debt loads and an uncertain economy, students are increasingly pressured to see their education in terms of its benefits to their working lives rather than their public lives. Moreover, every day, they see polarized news media, policy-making institutions in gridlock, elections hijacked by special interests, and negative advertising. Lacking anything comparable to the student movement of the 1960s, they are understandably frustrated and alienated from what is called “politics” (Kiesa et al. 2008) and receive little guidance from colleges on how to connect politics to their working lives.

Students seek to make a difference and better the world around them, but they see politics as an ineffective way of doing so. If higher education is to produce an active and engaged citizenry, it must expose students to a different kind of politics—one that allows them to experience conflict, power, and collective action, but without reproducing the dysfunctions of our broken system. For a way to reconcile political engagement and preparation for work as part of a college experience with a genuinely political vision of higher education and its civic mission, we turn to Hannah Arendt, a preeminent 1950s political theorist. Drawing on Arendt’s framework, we argue that meaningful work is what links individuals to the world of politics, and should be the central aim of liberal education.

Labor, Work, and Action: Arendt’s Legacy

Arendt was a German émigré who saw a similar depoliticization as the precursor of twentieth-century totalitarian movements. She feared that the industrial societies of the time—whether the free market systems of the West or the planned economies of the Soviet bloc—encouraged citizens to focus on economic activity rather than public life. Inspired by the Greek polis, Arendt sought to preserve the political world that humans shape, their “web of relationships,” the space in which they organize themselves and appear to each other and act in pursuit of their common lives (Arendt 2000, 179). It was the polis that Arendt cared about and sought to love. The polis is neither the government nor elections, though these have come to seem coterminous with the word “political.” There are myriad other settings—town meetings, union halls, clubs, even religious associations—in which the work of democracy is pursued today. Dubbed the “political wetlands” by David Matthews (2014), these informal spaces are where the modern polis can be found. Recreating more of these spaces is the task of politics today.

Arendt saw the polis as threatened by the “social,” or economic, sphere of modern life—we have become a consumer society. To make sense of these trends, she developed classic distinctions among three forms of human activity: labor, work, and action.

Labor assures not only individual survival, but the life of the species. Work and its product, the human artifact, bestow a measure of permanence and durability upon the futility of mortal life and the fleeting character of human time. Action, in so far as it engages in founding and preserving political bodies, creates the condition for remembrance, that is, for history…. Moreover, since action is the political activity par excellence, natality, and not mortality, may be the central category of political, as distinguished from metaphysical, thought (Arendt 1958, 8–9, emphasis added).

Arendt sought to recover an ethos of action in a world in which work—and worse, labor—claim ever-greater importance in our lives, replacing politics as the sphere that gives meaning and dignity to our lives.

According to Arendt, “labor” serves no purposes other than biological necessity and survival. It is purely economic and often characterized by drudgery. “Jobs” can now be seen as the current analog of her term “labor.” To the extent that they lack a sense of meaning or purpose, even Information Age jobs and skilled public sector jobs have this quality.

In contrast to labor, Arendt characterized “work” by the creation of artifacts, objects whose permanence impacts both the physical and political worlds (e.g., in the creation of works of art). For Arendt, work, while not fully political, at least reflects a sense of purpose and meaning that is lacking in labor. Similarly, in this sense, as one community college faculty member often tells her students, “My job is not my work” (L. Jones, pers. comm.). While one has a job to “make a living,” work is tied to the notion of a vocation, a calling to make a contribution to our shared world and enhance it. Kayla Mueller, the “humanitarian worker” killed by the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, moved from job to job, but what was constant was her “work”—her advocacy and her action. If meaningful work is sustained over a lifetime, it can become one’s “body of work,” a lasting legacy of good done for the world. Since its purpose is the care the worker feels for the world, and the need one feels to show that care, this kind of activity instantiates what Arendt called amor mundi (love of the world).

Arendt understood work as “pre-political,” since it does not necessarily impact action in the polis. However, work draws the individual into the world. The meaningfulness of work cannot be experienced in isolation. For example, Kayla Mueller’s humanitarian services affect our lives together in the material and digital worlds. Such work can be seen as connected to and impacting the polis, the web of relationships in which we live. Work is the link, so to speak, between the individual and the public.

While having a job that impacts the world is noble and worthwhile, action is the preeminent political activity. Action alters this web of relationships and literally changes the world. To an extent that is not true in jobs or work, action is inevitably tied up with speech; the two are usually found together. Speech can be a form of action, and we reveal ourselves as agents in a unique fashion when we act, and make a difference in the world, first through deeds and then through words (Arendt 1958, 178–80). Through speech we explain our actions, and actions often validate the integrity of what someone is saying. Plurality defines action. When we act, we act into a world with others whether we act individually or together, whether the action occurs in a fourth grade classroom where college students mentor children in action projects to improve their school, or in Tahrir Square during the Arab Spring. To restore politics, our goal must entail fostering more opportunities for civic action.

Action also has the unique ability to reveal who we are, as agents, rather than what we are, as persons. Since action implies a world of others and relies on the individual initiative of the actor or the unpredictable initiative of a group working in concert, both of which are infinitely complex and impossible to forecast, action has a unique revelatory quality, especially when accompanied by speech, an ability to show us to the world for who we uniquely are. Doing a job each day does somehow define us, as in the frequent conversation starter: “What do you do?” Still, a job does not reveal us in the unique way that action does. This is why Arendt cites natality—the utterly distinctive ability to do the new—as a major characteristic of action.

Work, Higher Education, and the Decline of Politics

Much of the pressures diminishing the place of politics—and consequently changing higher education—has to do with how modern concepts and practices of work have changed. In the classical world that influenced Arendt, education and citizenship were naturally connected. As an elite activity, education was for people who were expected to play a leading role in public life. The liberal arts were truly civic arts centered on the education of the next generation of public leaders. The classical view of citizenship was very robust, but reserved to a narrow elite.

Now, from a democratic perspective, we have a fundamental irony: as citizenship has been democratized, it has been diminished. We have now come to believe that regardless of race, gender, or occupation, all citizens are entitled to equal democratic citizenship. However, the majority of modern citizens do not have a significant amount of leisure time to engage in politics and philosophy. They primarily work for a living. Civic activities are done in spare time, after work and family obligations have been satisfied. Work is more inclusive and pluralistic than ever before, but action and citizenship have reduced their claims over our lives.

In this context, higher education in the twenty-first century is more inclusive than ever before, notably due to the increased access provided by the community college system and public four-year colleges. And yet this same irony holds. Community colleges have explicit workforce development missions, while private colleges and universities are increasingly preprofessional in their orientation. Despite their differences, higher education institutions are now widely viewed in terms of their career benefits to their graduates. Indeed, it would be irresponsible to the students if higher education did not prepare them for employment in the modern economy, and it would be self-defeating to the institutions to ignore these realities. However, the consequence of these pressures is that liberal education is no longer viewed as a civic enterprise. To the extent that higher education focuses narrowly on jobs, it educates students for what Arendt calls labor. It fails to prepare students for meaningful work, let alone active democratic citizenship.

While the “civic mission” of higher education has received renewed interest in recent years, colleges and universities have in some ways reinforced the decline of politics. Responding to increased pressures in an uncertain economy, institutions encourage students to see their education in terms of career and professional development. Even when pushing back against this narrowing of mission, colleges and universities have trumpeted the “soft skills” known to find resonance with employers, such as critical thinking and working in teams. Nevertheless, students can be critical and still be completely alienated from politics. They can work in small groups on agreed-upon tasks without learning how to come together politically on the tough issues that divide our society. Such “skills talk” falls critically short of what our young people really need to rekindle their passion for politics.

Similarly, many college campuses do offer opportunities for civic experiences to be inter-woven into the curriculum and tied to serious academic outcomes. In practice, however, civic engagement has primarily meant volunteer activities disconnected from conflict and power. Such civic experiences can be tremendously rewarding and educational, and yet they subtly reinforce the message that there are better ways than politics to change the world.

From Soft Skills to Civic Virtues

At one point, Hannah Arendt considered using Amor Mundi as the title for her masterwork on human activity, but decided instead to name it The Human Condition (Young-Bruehl 1982). That alternate title usefully offers a different perspective on the human activity she analyzed in her book, suggesting the role of the heart as a political force at the core of democratic citizenship. For students to engage in action as envisioned by Arendt, they need much more than technical skills or even soft skills. Rather, they need a complex blend of skills, habits, and attachments. The ancient language of virtue or excellence better captures the habits of an educated democratic citizenry. Elinor Ostrom, who won the Nobel Prize for economics, saw civic culture as the key to collective action:

When de Tocqueville discussed the “art and science of association,” he was referring to the crafts learned by those who had solved ways of engaging in collective action to achieve a joint benefit. Some aspects of the science of association are both counterintuitive and counterintentional, and thus must be taught to each generation as part of the culture of a democratic citizenry (Ostrom 1998).

A civic culture implies much more than academic knowledge, technical skill, or job training. It suggests a “civic spectrum” of at least three dimensions of civic virtue: emotional, intellectual, and political—the heart, the head, and the hands (Ronan 2011).

The affective or emotional virtue is civic friendship. This civic friendship, according to Aristotle (1925), is what holds cities together across their many differences. This special relationship among citizens acting in concert is a public thing, unlike personal friendships or tribal bonds. For students to engage in action together, they must first see themselves as part of a community. A civic identity provides the motivation to engage in deliberation and action. Arguably, the notion that civic education entails matters of the heart seems foreign to us, yet any substantive reflection on our own experience of civic action, or that of others, will quickly reveal that the heart is involved and that civic relationships do matter greatly for the ultimate success of any public work or action.

The cognitive or intellectual virtue is judgment (phronesis in Greek, which also translates as prudence). One might have the motivation to participate in a community without having the actual cognitive ability to do so, instead falling back on partisan beliefs and ideology. Habits of judgment fill this gap. Aristotle wrote that phronesis is not theoretical knowledge; it is focused on action, on getting something done in the world (1925). This savvy is acquired principally through deliberation, which revolves around how to take the practical steps in order to function as a polis. People learn from the experience of interacting with each other, particularly when they together confront ethically complex and politically divisive issues. They learn the art and practice of dialogue: the process of reaching practical, actionable conclusions and defining and talking about their problems in order to act together.

Finally, the political virtue requisite for rejuvenating a love of the world in our common life is empowered agency. Agency is what enables citizens to act on the basis of their judgments and realize their civic identities. This civic power is self-reinforcing as long as the citizens continue to deliberate, giving them a sense of efficacy. Citizens in these civic experiences come to have a sense that their words and deeds matter, that what they are doing has significance. To develop and sustain their agency, students must be given regular opportunities, in school and in their communities, to engage in collective action and learn from the results. Without such habitual participation in politics, Arendt feared that the civic capacities of modern citizens would be truncated, and they would lose the taste for public affairs.

The epigram to this piece, from a talk Danielle Allen (2001) gave to graduates about the struggles and conflicts of citizenship in the shadow of 9/11 can shed light on the virtues these citizens need. Through deliberative conversation, they “achieve accounts of the world,” a public knowledge of what they need to do (head). This savvy must be commensurate with the bonds, or “norms of friendship” among the citizens (heart), and “provide grounds” for civic action (hands).

Fostering the growth of jobs that have a sense of purpose is important, as is recalibrating existing jobs so they have a more purposeful direction to impacting the world. One could begin with the millions of public sector jobs in this country. While such public sector jobs are arguably civic in legislative intent, they are nonetheless often typified for the laborer by mindless drudgery rather than engagement with citizens, thus the term “bureaucratic.” Still, it’s encouraging that the private sector and the nonprofit sector are growing jobs that have an avowed civic intent. Higher education can do its part to teach students to better recognize the larger social and political context of their future careers and better enable them to find meaning and purpose.

Of greater import for the sake of our political life is the encouragement of students to confront the polis, with all of its issues and challenges, and answer the call to civic work, which will enable each student to flourish. This kind of civic work can be pursued outside the confines of one’s job and can be undertaken through volunteer activities with others. Finally, students must be encouraged to undertake collective action, to enter the fray of a polis that matters to them and engages their interest, to deliberate with their fellows about whatever cause or interest has brought that “space of appearance” into being in the first place, to discover in their interlocutors new civic friends who share their common interests and support their work, and to roll up their sleeves and act in the world—the purpose for which they were born into the polis, which was there before they came and will last beyond their leaving.



Allen, Danielle. 2001. “Aims of Education Address 2001.” The University of Chicago.

Arendt, Hannah. 1958. The Human Condition. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press.

——. 2000. “Labor, Work, Action.” The Portable Hannah Arendt. New York, Penguin Books.

Aristotle. 1925. The Nicomachean Ehics, Trans. D. Ross. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Kiesa, Abby, Alexander P. Olowski, Peter Levine, Deborah Both, Emily H. Kirby, Mark H. Lopez, M., and Karlo Barrios Marcelo. 2008. Millennials Talk Politics: A Study of College Students’ Political Engagement. College Park, MD: Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement.

Matthews, David. 2014. The Ecology of Democracy: Finding Ways to Have a Stronger Hand in Shaping the Future. Dayton, OH: Kettering Foundation Press.

Ostrom, Elinor. 1998. The Need for Civic Education: A Collective Action Perspective. Working Paper, Workshop in Political Theory and Policy Analysis. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University.

Ronan, Bernie. 2011. The Civic Spectrum: How Students Become Engaged Citizens. Dayton, OH: The Kettering Foundation.

Young-Bruehl, Elizabeth. 1982. Hannah Arendt—For Love of the World. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.

Bernie Ronan is the director for Division of Public Affairs at Maricopa Community Colleges; and Derek W. M. Barker is the program officer at Kettering Foundation


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