Teaching Opinion

Putting the Public Back in Public Education—From Protest to Public-Making

By Harry C. Boyte — January 05, 2017 5 min read
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Dear Deb and Colleagues,

Greetings in a consequential New Year. I see possibilities amidst the dangers.

As I’ve said before, I appreciate your experiments in Central Park East and Mission Hill schools in democratic decision making. We can learn a lot from them.

We can learn from other kinds of stories as well. These include examples when the “so what?” habit of mind you taught in your schools has been taken to scale, and publics became involved in thinking about and taking action on the purpose of education. David Mathews, president of the Kettering Foundation likes to call it, “the public in public education.”

I’m eager to identify such stories, draw others in, and begin collective harvesting of experiences as prelude to and background for effective action.

Today Diane Ravitch and others are “sounding the alarm” about the Trump team’s drive to privatize education, which threatens to further marginalize public purposes. But sounding alarms only works when publics exist to take action. Otherwise alarms are ineffective protests.

There is a good deal to build on in recent years which point toward possibilities for public action. I begin today with the story of the American Commonwealth Partnership.

September 4th, 2012, a coalition organized by our Center for Democracy and Citizenship (now the Sabo Center for Democracy and Citizenship at Augsburg), in association with the National Issues Forum Institute of discussion groups and under the auspices of the American Commonwealth Partnership, launched a national discussion called Shaping Our Future -- How Should Higher Education Help Us Create the Society We Want? The American Commonwealth Partnership grew out of an invitation from the White House Office of Public Engagement to our Center to mark the 150th anniversary of the Morrill Act passed in 1862. The Morrill Act brought higher education to the “industrial and agricultural classes.”

Shaping Our Future involved citizens in discussions about the purposes of higher education. It was co-sponsored by many other education groups. Taking part in the launch was Martha Kanter, Undersecretary of Education, Mathews, Muriel Howard, president of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, Nancy Cantor, Chancellor of Syracuse University, Scott Peters, co-chair of the Imagining America consortium of colleges and others.

At the outset I was struck by a question from a freshman at the University of St. Thomas as we evaluated the meeting. Expressing enthusiasm, he also said, “I’ve never heard the question, ‘what is the purpose of education?, asked before.’” Not long after, Dave Senjem, Republican minority leader of the Minnesota Senate, told me the same thing. In all his years in the Minnesota legislature, he had never heard the question “What’s the purpose of education?”

Shaping Our Future involved several thousand students, professors, families, civic and political leaders, community organizers, businesspeople, union members and others. They surfaced many ideas of purposes. One woman in Kansas said that higher education should get students out of their bubbles. “If you have a higher education...you’ve been exposed to different cultures, different lifestyles, different religions, different belief systems. You have a heart and mind that are both opened.”

Many also voiced worries about what’s being lost. In Maryland, an elderly man said that higher education “used to be the kind of thing that created our thinkers and our leaders...they would have that broad array of courses and ideas and cultures.” A man in Colorado said, we’ve lost sight of education’s meaning. “When people are worried about going to school to make money...education, in and of itself, is no longer sacred.”

I was reminded of the opening chapter in Betty Friedan’s 1964 book, The Feminine Mystique, which helped to launch the modern women’s movement. “The problem lay buried, unspoken, for many years,” Friedan wrote. “It was a strange stirring, a sense of dissatisfaction...There was no word of this yearning in the millions of words written about women, for women, in all the columns, books and articles by experts telling women their role....each woman struggled with it alone. She was afraid to ask even of herself the silent question: ‘Is this all?’”

In an educational environment where individual advance is touted as the singular goal, the question, “Is this all?,” once again has urgency.

Many lessons can be drawn from Shaping Our Future. For instance, discussions were best when they took place off campuses, in libraries, community centers, or other community settings. They were more powerful if they had wide sponsorship. Ideally discussions launched on-going examination of the roles of higher education in communities. In retrospect, we realized that the discussion guide needed to do a better job of asking about the roles and responsibilities of diverse stakeholders in subsequent action.

In future columns I’ll describe other stories in a similar vein. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, we worked with Robert Bruininks, provost at the University of Minnesota, on an initiative to revitalize the university’s public mission, after interviews with senior faculty had revealed widespread, hidden discontents with the privatized, detached research culture that had developed; several years later we worked with Mayor Norm Coleman in St Paul to organize a city-wide discussion on the purposes of K-12 schools. Important lessons can be drawn about what worked and what can be improved from each.

The discussions also showed that “publics” can be brought into existence around questions of purpose. Enormous latent interest exists across partisan, racial, cultural, and economic divides. A key lesson is that a large gap exists between policy makers and the deep, usually unvoiced concerns of the citizenry. This gap is detailed in Jean Johnson’s splendid “Divided We Fail” report on Shaping Our Future.

The gap dramatizes that policy-making usually takes place behind closed doors, between private interests and policy makers. Even when more open, it is between credentialed experts and policy makers, rarely involving publics. Privatization feeds on private processes.

Our challenge is to move from protest to public-building.


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