Teaching Opinion

A New Cooperative Education

By Harry C. Boyte — April 05, 2016 4 min read
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Harry Boyte continues his conversation with Deborah Meier. To read their full exchange, please visit here.

Dear Deb,

I agree with your stress on democratic decision making. But if we look at democracy as an empowering way of life, more than decision-making rules are necessary. Without a larger view, citizenship is sentimentalized and democracy is narrowed.

We need to combine the “head,” which makes decisions, the “heart,” moral imagination and emotion, and the “hand,” civic muscles that power action in the world. This is, in fact, a core argument in Civic Studies. Peter Levine’s essay, “The Case for Civic Studies,” in the Civic Studies collection, linked on the Tisch College site at Tufts University has a splendid treatment. Peter shows how current education curriculum artificially separates the empirical disciplines, natural and social sciences; normative fields, the humanities; and strategic or action fields, the professions and vocations.

What does a student who integrates these look like? Let me tell a story and suggest a policy.

The late Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey traced his political career to his father’s drug store in Doland, South Dakota (described in The Education of a Public Man). The drug store was a free space for talk and action. “I’ve listened to some of the great parliamentary debates of our time,” Humphrey wrote, “but have seldom heard better discussions of basic issues than I did as a boy standing on a wooden platform behind the soda fountain.” Humphrey’s father was one of a handful of Democrats in a town with hundreds of Republicans. He became the mayor. But his life work wasn’t running for office. He was building a democratic culture.

The store functioned as cultural center with music from his father’s rickety phonograph, and many books and magazines. Humphrey wrote that “Time after time, when he read about some political development . . . he’d say, ‘You should know this, Hubert. It might affect your life someday.’” His father was also a civic activist. “When most of the town wanted to sell the municipally owned power plant to a private utility, Dad...fought the idea tooth and nail...he would take me to the evening meetings of the council, install me in a chair by a corner window, and then do battle, hour after hour.”

In sum, Humphrey’s father was a “citizen pharmacist,” someone who saw their career in civic terms. We’ve lost a lot of citizen careers and citizen professionals. One remedy is a movement to revive “Cooperative Education.”

Cooperative Education is a method that combines academic study and classroom learning with practical work experience for which students can receive academic credit (see the Wikipedia entry). Co-op Education draws from Dewey’s concept that education should be connected “with real things and materials” and his warning about “the tendency for every vocation to become exclusive...[emphasizing] technical method at the expense of meaning.”

Cooperative Education, created by Dewey’s contemporary, Herman Schneider, aimed to connect work and liberal learning. From 1965 to 1996 it was supported by federal legislation. Charles Grassley, Republican senator from Iowa, was the leading champion.

I asked Lois Olson, who long directed the Strommen Center at Augsburg College and was hired in 1985 to help implement a Cooperative Education grant from the US Department of Education, where she got her interest in this connection. “I grew up on a farm in Southwestern Minnesota where politics was everywhere,” she said. “My dad often took me to the local pool hall, the civic site for the town. The conversations intertwined politics, religion and economics.”

At Augsburg Lois helped to create an employer council and a prestigious faculty council including many liberal arts department chairs. Together they developed plans for student learning through work. She posed questions to students to help them think about their careers in civic terms. “Describe the culture, policies, allocation of resources that might impact citizenship,” she told them. She reported that “responses were very rich. Some said, ‘I had no idea that my employer was doing all this.’ Others said, ‘I looked at the mission and realized it was mostly PR.’ Some held discussions about this with their fellow workers.”

In the 1990s, service learning, seen as “education for citizenship” in higher education, came to substitute for work-based learning in federal and state policies. The strength of service is to bring “community,” or a focus on human relationships into active education. But when it loses work citizenship becomes sentimentalized. I saw this first hand in our partnership with the Clinton administration, which led the policy changes. Clinton called for Big Citizenship and attacked “Big Government.”

Democracy requires integrating head, heart, and hand.

Kathleen Knight Abowitz, who chairs the education leadership department at Miami University, proposes bringing liberal and vocational learning together. “Liberal education should be more vocationalized [with] social relevance and purposes in mind,” she argues. “Vocational education should be liberalized [with] larger, holistic humanist aims and purposes.” We also need stronger focus in both on civic agency, capacities to act collectively in and on the world.

A new Cooperative Education could help, while countering extremist attacks on education for being disconnected from “jobs.”

It would also help to revive the idea of democracy as an empowering way of life, with government as the instrument of our common work.


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.