Teaching Opinion

Citizen Professionals as Democratic Patriots

By Harry C. Boyte — February 23, 2016 4 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Dear Deb,

I like your idea of “democratic habits” as the goal of education. I’d also bring in the skills and habits of civic agency. A topic for another day: how to assess civic agency?

I also like the open-ended, questioning way you present your habits. Thinking strategically about how to catalyze a democratic movement across K-16 education means developing ways to advance ideas for assessment of democratic habits/civic agency for discussion, use, debate, and development. The process is as important as the product.

As for your emphasis on “habits of mind and heart” - it’s a lot better than the simple cognitive focus, “mind,” in higher education which dominates these days. Richard Levin, president Emeritus of Yale, gave a talk last fall at the University of Illinois Urbana Champaign where I’m going tomorrow. His title was “education for global citizenship.” He made interesting points about the need to revisit older ideas about what are “furniture” and the “disciplines” of the mind, drawing on Yale curricular changes. But Levin neglected “heart,” the way education cultivates affections. He also neglected “hand,” work in the world. I am glad work habits are part of your mix.

There is a growing sense of crisis among educators in higher education that we’ve lost control over the huge changes occurring (there is also a sense of crisis in K-12 about perceived loss of agency but it takes somewhat different forms).

Colleges and universities face rising costs, growing student debt, political attacks, and technological transformations. Educators usually feel powerless. Emphasizing (and assessing) democratic habits is not only good for students but also good for educators. Faculty and staff need skills and habits of democratic action to move from being objects and victims of change to being agents and architects of change.

I see two “polarities” which disarm higher education in the face of its critics by greatly weakening relationships with larger publics outside higher education. One is the tension between “education for global citizenship,” widely advanced as the aim of liberal education, and inward-looking nationalism. Reflecting the culture of detachment in research I described last week, educators tend to see themselves as “outside” the society, partnering with citizens -- not citizens themselves. The other is the tension between preparation for careers and liberal education.

Adding heart and hand involves two ways to rethink things. In the civil rights movement I learned “democratic internationalism,” different than either “America 1st” nationalism or global citizenship. I worked for the Citizenship Education Program of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, King’s organization. Our “Citizenship Workbook” put it this way. “We love our land - America!” It also affirmed the right of other peoples in the Western Hemisphere to the identity of “American.” And it welcomed the emergence of new nations in Africa and Asia “where people of color are demanding the freedom to decide their destiny.”

Democratic internationalism challenges distinctions between “advanced” democracies and “emerging” democracies. In a time of grave threats to democracy in the US and across the world, we need to learn from each other. Democratic internationalism is also grounded in patriotism which sees citizens not defined by legal status but rather by people as co-creators of open and dynamic societies, refreshed by each wave of immigrants and new generations.

The culture of being “outside” has spread to all the professions. Professionals who talk about civic engagement see it as meaning working with citizens. They don’t see themselves as citizens.

Adding “hand” brings together liberal arts together with career preparation. There are proposals on the table. For instance Mike Rose in The Mind at Work is full of examples of how this might happen.

We need new focus on “citizen professional” and “citizen worker” in many fields, graduates who understand and engage the world as it is but also are effective agents of change, who see institutions not as places to fit in but rather as sites for democratic transformation.

This requires equipping students and educators with capacities to create empowering schools and businesses, congregations and clinics, nonprofits and public agencies -- foundations for democracy as a way of life not simply a trip to the ballot box.

Shouldn’t a connection between a democratic, open patriotism and civic agency begin in K-12 schools? And shouldn’t K-12 make strong connections between work with public purpose and impact and learning?

The tag line of the Minneapolis public schools is “education for global citizenship.” I’m sure it’s meant to welcome new immigrants. But my experience is that like African Americans in the civil rights movement, immigrants “love our land - America!”


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.