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Democratic Stirrings in Higher Education

By Harry C. Boyte — February 16, 2016 4 min read
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Dear Deb and colleagues

You raise the question of academic culture. A complex story!

Under the surface of the “Ivory Tower” image, it’s enormously varied, changing radically, dynamic - while many faculty feel nothing will ever change. So we face the challenge of people, collectively, regaining a sense of agency.

I also believe that colleges and universities are crucial places to work for change, including in K-12 education. Next week I’m going to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign to talk about “Public Universities and the Future of Democracy” ( https://undergrad-education.illinois.edu/initiatives/Boyte%20lecture%20flyer.pdf )The provost has created a university-wide task force charged with undergraduate curricular change across the university, and they are asking what would a renewed focus on citizenship and democracy mean. The College of Education has also organized a session on “citizen teacher,” a teacher who is equipped to be agent of democratic change, and we also have a humanities discussion on the new “civic studies,” our transdisciplinary field of civic engagement. This kind of thing is happening a lot.

Colleges and universities are “upstream” institutions. There, professionals develop the identities and the practices which they carry with them into careers, and the process shapes the whole society -- including K-12 education. We need to see democratic change in higher education on a large scale if we’re going to see broad democratic change in schools, religious congregations, businesses, nonprofits, or government. They all go together.

I’m not nostalgic about the past, with its prejudices and exclusions. But it’s important to also know what we’ve lost. There was once a widespread sense that higher education contributes to a democratic way of life, especially for public colleges and universities, including City College in New York where all students from New York high schools could attend for free. Across higher education democracy-building was often a central theme. “Most of the American institutions of higher education are filled with the democratic spirit,” said Harvard President Charles Eliot in 1908. Truman’s Commission on Education in 1947 declared that The first and most essential charge upon higher education is that ... it shall be the carrier of democratic values, ideals and processes.”

Now there is a fledgling democracy movement to revitalize these purposes. Here’s a link to a discussion on the Kettering Foundation’s web site among a group of college and university presidents who want to revitalize the role of “philosophers of democracy and education.” https://www.kettering.org/blogs/template-campus-conversations . The template identifies several areas of work like strengthening the “public narrative” of an institution; emphasizing “cooperative excellence” not simply individualist achievement; preparing students for citizen careers; creating a diversity of free spaces for discussion across disciplines; and becoming “part of places,” woven into the fabric of communities not simply “partners” with places.

But there are large obstacles. The scholarly culture of universities became more detached from the world over the last half century, a process documented in Thomas Bender and Carl Schorske’s collection, American Academic Culture in Transformation, a set of reflections by leaders in four disciplines about academic culture over the last half of the 20th century. The pattern of detachment is reinforced by the rankings like the “Shanghei 100" and US News and World Report which put a premium on publications, “publish or perish,” as well as cultures of exclusivity (the higher the percentage of students rejected the higher the rankings in US News, which leads to some institutions gaming the system).

The result is that higher education is significantly weakened while facing attack from powerful interests. Politicians like Marco Rubio, the presidential candidate, or Scott Walker, Wisconsin’s governor, argue colleges should be focused much more on “vocational training” (Rubio is famous for saying we need more welders and fewer philosophers). Meanwhile a host of commissions and leaders are arguing for defense of the “liberal arts,” equating these with skills and identities like critical thinking and global citizenship. They warn against pressures toward “careerism.”

This, I’m convinced, is a dead end and dysfunctional debate about false choices. However imperfectly, the old democracy tradition of higher education, especially but not only in public schools, brought together preparation for work and professions with public meanings, of work. They connected “liberal arts” and “practical arts.” This was also tied to a different view of democracy as a way of life built through work filled with public meaning. They also cultivated a democratic patriotism linked to a democratic internationalism -- neither bellicose nationalism nor “global citizenship.”

This linkage is crucial to revitalize.

Colleges need to prepare students not only for today’s jobs but to be agents of change to create more humane, democratic institutions as part of a democratic society. This means connecting liberal arts and professional studies in new ways and connecting both to democratic purposes and practices. Here, Augsburg College, a Lutheran private college growing from the folk school movement in Scandinavia - which explicitly “educated for life,” infusing all work with public and civic meanings -- is like the old landgrants. Both education and nursing are focusing on democratic and civic purposes, for instance.

We will need very different ways to assess such preparation. And a lot of organizing.

The opinions expressed in Bridging Differences are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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