By Harry C. Boyte
Today is the 220th anniversary of the Bill of Rights. Proposed by
Congress on September 25, 1789, the Bill of Rights – otherwise known
as the first Ten Amendments to the Constitution — went into effect
after its ratification by Virginia, on December 15, 1891.
The Bill emerged from a fierce debate between “Federalists” and
“Anti-Federalists” about whether to ratify the Constitution itself,
which the historian Pauline Meier described as a national “dialogue
between power and liberty.” The dialogue continues in today’s
tempestuous arguments about the role of government, the dangers of
centralized power — and how to develop the authority and capacities
of the citizenry.
Supporters of the Constitution like Benjamin Franklin argued that
while “there are several parts of this Constitution which I do not
approve,” its adoption was necessary if the nation were to survive. It
seemed unlikely that anyone would be “able to make a better
Constitution.” Opponents warned of the dangers of centralized power,
citing examples through history. Brutus (most likely Robert Yates)
cautioned of the tendencies of government to produce “an absolute
state of vassalage.”
The Bill of Rights broke the impasse. It embodied civic agency in
content and process.
In the first instance, the amendments not only limit the powers of
government, but also, positively, enumerate and protect methods
through which citizens express and develop their civic capacities –
freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, freedom of worship, freedom of
association, and freedom of the press, among others. These freedoms
also allow powerless groups like African Americans, the poor, women
and others to challenge the severe exclusions built into original
understandings of “citizen.”
In the second, the debate itself, taking place in taverns, homes and
congregations, schools, colleges, local governments and local media,
created a wide experience of ownership in the fledgling nation.
Discussions gave substance to the Constitution’s Preamble, which had
declared that “we the people” establish government as the instrument
of common labors and common purposes.
In the Information Age, colleges, universities, schools and
educational groups of all kinds have crucial roles to play as civic
centers in the life of communities. They are schools for citizenship
through which people develop the knowledge, dispositions, skills and
habits necessary for a flourishing democratic society while tackling
real world problems and making a common life.
The American Commonwealth Partnership, like the debates which produced
the Bill of Rights, puts citizens on center stage. It aims to
strengthen the capacities of education to help create a democracy “of
the people and by the people,” not only “for” the people.
ACP continues the dialogue between power and liberty.
Harry C. Boyte, Director of the Center for Democracy and Citizenship at Augsburg College and a Senior Fellow at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs, is director of the American Commonwealth Partnership.
If you think students’ participation in civic engagement is important to higher education and our democracy at large, we want to hear from you.
Please submit a brief blog ( 300-400 words, along with your photo, a brief bio and any relevant links or images you want to share). You can shape your post around the following question/s:
- Do you think it’s important for students to get involved in civic work on campus and in their communities at large?
- How can civic engagement benefit our democracy as a whole?
- What’s the biggest problem that needs solving where you are and how can students make a difference?
There is no right or wrong answer, we just want to hear from people like you and what you think about students’ participation in civic engagement and its’ impact on our society at large.
Our goal is to spread the word about the campaign and to show deep student interest ahead of January 11, 2012, when “For Democracy’s Future” will be launched at the White House.
It is critical that we can bring your voice to the White House and to the Department of Education to show that fixing our democracy is something that young people care deeply about, and have much to contribute to.
Please help us spread the word about this campaign with your community.
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By Sarah M. Collier, PhD
I recently completed my doctorate in plant breeding and genetics. This is a field of science that revolves around better understanding how plants work at the most basic level, and then applying this understanding to enhancing plants’ suitability for human uses such as agriculture. It is a field well-suited to addressing, through research, some of the world’s most pressing challenges, including food security, environmental health, and the ultimate goal of agricultural systems that are truly sustainable in the long term. The importance of focusing the power of scientific inquiry on issues such as these cannot, in my opinion, be overstated.
However, over the course of my graduate training I have become increasingly aware that all of the well-designed, well-intentioned research in the world will not cause the changes we need to happen as fast as we need them to for the sustainability of global food systems. While science must provide a crucial foundation upon which the discussion for our course forward can be based, scientific research alone cannot alter the world, nor does it provide the only kind of important knowledge that needs to be part of the solution.
Knowledge that comes from balancing different interests and understanding power relationships, and knowledge that grows from traditions and life experience, are also of crucial importance. The efficient sculpting of scientific research into real-world applications and changes thus requires engagement and cooperation between not only scientists, but also between students, farmers, policy-makers, and everyone else in between. Agricultural research will only lead to improvements if it is both relevant to the farmers who would act upon it while also acceptable to consumers. Significant progress in agricultural sustainability depends on well-informed, respectful discourse and collaborative work between the scientific community, the agricultural industry, and the public at large. We must all take note and take action to address this challenge together.
As a postdoctoral associate at the University of Wisconsin I am happy to find myself working at the intersection of agricultural and civic sciences. As I strive in my own small way to bring agricultural research into alignment with needs and values of producer and consumer communities, I know that others are doing the same from many different positions around the common challenge of sustainability.
Sarah Collier is a postdoctoral research associate working in agricultural sustainability with the Jahn Group at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She holds a BSc in Botany from the University of Washington and a PhD in Plant Breeding from Cornell University, where she studied the functional mechanisms of plant disease resistance proteins. Her current focus is on animal agriculture sustainability in Wisconsin, with emphasis on the transition of large-scale research investments into on-farm applications.
By Caitlyn Leiter-Mason
On the last weekend before classes ended, I wasn’t in the library studying or out celebrating before finals began. Instead, I was interviewing candidates for Maryland’s student regent position as part of the University System of Maryland (USM) Student Council.
When I was first appointed to the council, I had no idea what my role would be. But after a year of involvement in student government at UMBC , where students act as partners with the administration in creating change on campus, I was intrigued by participating in shared governance on a larger scale.
The University System of Maryland consists of 12 public universities in the state. We’re led by the Board of Regents and our Chancellor, Brit Kirwan. The system is also advised by four councils: the Councils of University System Presidents, Faculty, and Staff, as well as the USM Student Council.
We meet monthly to deliberate the higher education issues that Maryland faces, covering everything from the role of regional centers to a proposed merger between two schools, to parental leave for graduate assistants to budget and tuition issues. We discuss our institutions’ concerns and share new ideas and initiatives. When the annual Joint Council meeting occurs, student members meet with their staff and faculty counterparts to discuss higher education issues. We present our ideas and findings to the chancellor, right alongside the professors and staff.
Our council also has another important task: selecting student candidates to be considered for a full-voting position on the Board of Regents. No other council has such a representative. But the students do, and we take the responsibility of helping the chancellor and governor pick someone to represent every student in the university system very seriously. We ask questions about their previous experience, how they would balance the sometimes conflicting interests of students and the system administration, and what new ideas they would bring to the system. We then carefully evaluate how each of the candidates would represent us.
Being a part of the student council has taught me a lot about our university system, the schools within it, the politics of higher education, and the way that shared governance works on a state level. I’ve also learned that the decisions and recommendations we make aren’t our only, or even most important, contribution. We’re actively practicing democracy, not just to gain experience, but to help govern our schools.
I’ve also learned that civic engagement isn’t just about going into an outside community and making a difference. Civic engagement is also about taking ownership of the places where we are now. It’s about stepping up to participate in leadership within those places and making sure our voices are heard. As students we have an important perspective and it’s time for us to embrace civic engagement to create change in our university and campus communities.
Caitlyn Leiter-Mason is a Sondheim Public Affair Scholar, studying gender and women’s studies and political science at UMBC. She is passionate about student governance, civic engagement, feminism, mangoes, and service-learning.
By Karin Kamp, DemocracyU
If you’re a college alum, or will be sometime soon, you know that connecting with your alma mater after graduation usually means being on the receiving end of campus communications: reading the alumni magazine, clicking on emails from the alumni association chapter, and finding requests for financial donations in your mailbox.
A new group called Citizen Alum believes that colleges and universities would benefit enormously by expanding the way in which they engage with graduates.
“Alumni can be important partners in community-engaged learning and in strengthening the college’s public mission,” said Dr. Julie Ellision, the director of Citizen Alum, and a professor in the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts at the University of Michigan.
The group is affiliated with the American Commonwealth Partners, a broad coalition of colleges and universities, community colleges, schools and community partners to promote civic education, civic mission, and civic identity throughout education in America.
Citizen Alum sees itself as an opportunity to harness the talents of alumni to help students and to become partners in campus life — from the colleges they attended to the schools in their home towns. The initiative aims to increase the range of people who consider themselves stakeholders in the future of U.S. higher education.
Citizen Alum says they are working to build new relationships with alumni who may not identify with standard alumni activities and the more traditional ways in which universities try to get their attention. They are currently focusing on reaching out to alumni to learn more about what matters most to them in their everyday lives.
To this end, a number of colleges and universities have begun ‘listening projects’ to understand how alumni engage with students and campus programs as well as with local organizations and global networks. These listening projects range from alumni interviews by staff or current students, alumni chapter meetings on the theme of active citizenship, research surveys, or workshops to reflect on vocation. The alums whose stories are now being heard include many whose public work has gone unrecognized.
Citizen Alum says that current students will benefit from this new type of alumni engagement as connections to alumni will allow universities and colleges to better support graduating students as they look ahead to a post-baccalaureate life of work, citizenship, and learning.
“Citizen Alum is responding to a thirst among both students and alumni to make meaningful connections between ideas in the classroom and life after graduation,” said Alex Olson, a doctoral candidate at the University of Michigan, who is a participating investigator for the project.
“Students are desperate for jobs but they have not lost the desire to make a difference,” he added. Valued for their work as catalysts of change, alumni can build relationships and contribute to classes, collaborate on campus-community projects, and serve as mentors for students in transition.
Ellision says Citizen Alum is currently developing a pilot program to identify best practices from colleges and universities that take a fresh approach to alumni relations. “We are seeing this energy among ‘gap alums’—people who graduated in the last five years—as well as ‘situated alums,’ people who are long-term residents of their cities and towns. Through their work lives, personal lives, and learning lives, all of these alumni have so much to offer, and we want to capitalize on that. In this case, it’s not just about the money,” ” Ellision told DemocracyU.
Citizen Alum plans to broaden alumni relations to include other measures of value, channeling the social, cultural, and creative capital of alums into relationships with current students and recent graduates.
Citizen Alum is affiliated with the American Commonwealth Partners, a broad coalition of colleges and universities, community colleges, schools and community partners to promote civic education, civic mission, and civic identity throughout education in America. The ACP is part of a coordinated effort, For Democracy’s Future, with the White House Office of Public Engagement, the Department of Education, the Association of American Colleges and Universities, and the Civic Mission of Schools that will be launched at the White House on January 10, to reclaim education’s civic mission.
By John P. Spencer, PhD
I am a basic scientist, and I absolutely adore scientific research. I love developing new theories, the thrill of new data, and making discoveries. I also relish the communal nature of scientific inquiry—I often tell people that I have the best set of students and colleagues in the world.
But a funny thing happened about 10 years ago—I discovered that what I do is relevant. I was at a local conference on child development, education, and intervention research feeling oddly out of place. After listening to talks all day, I found myself talking to a parent during one of the breaks. He was at the conference representing his local parent group. He also had a special needs child at home. I asked him my burning question from the day: how do you think children develop? He said, “No one has ever asked me that. I’m not really sure.” We had a great discussion. He told me wonderful stories about his daily interactions with his daughter. I told him about the fascinating discoveries researchers have made about how those daily, moment-by-moment interactions create development. In this exchange, a civic scientist was born.
I’m still discovering what ‘civic science’ means to me. And I’m fortunate to have colleagues at the world-class research center I direct—the Delta Center—who are joining in the discovery process. Although I’m not sure where this path will lead, I’m convinced that it’s time to unleash the relevance of science, and direct engagement with other citizens is a critical first step
By Yasmin Karimian
Each day as I pass Freedom Plaza, I see the tents of the occupiers still up. The dedication is inspiring and because of the closely proximity to my apartment, I am always curious and interested in the movement. Having just graduated college and as an avid user of Facebook, I pay particular attention to the Occupy Colleges movement.
According to occupycolleges.org, over 90 colleges have registered as having some sort of occupy movement on their campus. While I wholly support the message and concern of many students across the nation about rising tuition, the over privatization of education, and more graduates unable to find jobs, I question whether we are going about creating change in the most effective way.
Throughout my four years at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, I focused on methods of community organizing in order to revive the student government and create partnerships between the administration and the students. While it took much time and energy, the change seems to have been sustained in the community. Occupy Colleges writes about what Gandhi would do in times like these. The article on the front page of their website points to Gandhi’s persistent efforts to reduce division between two groups, the social responsibility that Gandhi constantly reminded his followers we each have, and his encouragement of “constructive work,” not mere protest. Gandhi was not the only leader who used these methods. The Civil Rights movement in large part also used community organizing techniques.
It may be time for us to reevaluate the methods we are using. If we keep it as us against them, nothing will change. We should build relationships with our administrators, who in fact have significant political power in government. As long as we continue protesting and demonstrating, we will not be able to create the ties necessary to produce change. It does not take more than a few bright minds to bring about change. What if we put our minds together and came up with solutions to the problems of our economy? Is our energy and intelligence really being spent in the most effective way as we spend our time in tents? It seems as though the Occupy movement has caught the attention of many and has many supporters. And with this attention and support, we have power. We need to stop demanding for something to change and actually help bring about the change.
Yasmin Karimian, past president of the Student Government Association at the University of Maryland Baltimore County, led in a transformation of SGA to be a center for student public work and culture change.
By Lindsey Ardrey
Last year as an Americorps VISTA volunteer I was presented with the opportunity to coordinate a program within Western Kentucky University’s Institute for Citizenship and Social Responsibility that my supervisor described as having the potential to change our youths’ lives. A program that would allow the university students I would lead, and myself, to marry our life’s passion and ambition for creating dynamic sustainable change within our communities to our academic pursuits. After leaving a graduate program that left me yearning for fulfillment and forced me to adjust my life and career goals, I was more than pleased to accept the offer. Quickly, I became well versed in Public Achievement’s core concepts of democracy, diversity, and freedom. Its will to empower youth and create cultural change within our communities—a program that encouraged youth to become civic co-creators of their own worlds.
In Spring 2011, we partnered with two schools within the Bowling Green Independent School District to launch a pilot program. Right away, Public Achievement’s uniqueness stood out. Within the first several meetings, group members of two third grade groups and one tenth grade group, each composed of six students, were asked by their university student coaches what they cared about. For many of them, this was the first time they had been asked about their interests. As the semester advanced, each group embarked on their own public work project. One on playground litter, another for animal rights and cruelty, and the other to end poverty in Bowling Green, Kentucky. Third grade students began identifying their own leadership and public speaking skills after speaking with a veterinarian and appearing on their school news. And our high school students saw their most significant project development when they depended on themselves rather than their coaches to get work done. Work to build a viable and sustainable mentoring program within an elementary school represented by lower socioeconomic status students.
As coordinator, I act as the coaches’ coach. Assisting our university coaches to become vehicles for cultural change and youth empowerment, which also means searching for my own power within. And now as a coach for a third grade group along with my coordinating responsibilities, I am constantly challenged to successfully engage students often overlooked in the classroom. We often say that public work is hard work. Exhausting work to be exact. But I have found nothing more satisfying than knowing that I had a hand in youth achieving their goals and proving others wrong. Proving that change agents have no minimal age requirement. Raising a generation immune to collective passivity and building producers rather than consumers of our democracy.
As a graduate assistant at Western Kentucky University’s Institute for Citizenship and Social Responsibility, Lindsey Ardrey coordinates the Public Achievement program. She currently pursues a Master of Arts degree in the Social Responsibility and Sustainable Communities program with an emphasis in the Black community.
By Scott Peters
On July 2, 1862, President Abraham Lincoln signed the first Morrill Act into law. Also referred to as the Land-Grant Act, it offered states grants of federal land to establish a new kind of college that would, in the language of the act, “promote the liberal and practical education of the industrial classes in the several pursuits and professions in life.” It was the first of several federal acts that built and supported what became known as the “land-grant system.” Today this system includes 109 institutions located in all 50 states and several US territories.
In the concluding sentence of his book on the origins and early development of the land-grant system, historian Earle D. Ross wrote that land-grant colleges were “real people’s colleges—with all their limitations a distinct native product and the fullest expression of democracy in higher education.” He communicated this point in the title he chose for his book, which was published in 1942. He called it Democracy’s College.
Democracy in American higher education is most often understood to mean a commitment to open and equal access, to affordability, to public service, to liberal education, and to a broad curriculum that enables any person to pursue any study (to paraphrase Ezra Cornell’s famous slogan for the land-grant university that bears his name). All these things are important. But there’s something missing from this list, something that has long been and still is a critically important part of the “democracy’s college” tradition in the land-grant system. We catch a glimpse of what’s missing in something the pioneering scholar of home economics Isabel Bevier said in 1920 to an audience gathered to celebrate the semicentennial of Ohio State University:
“And so another great door of opportunity was opened for human betterment; another chance was given for men and women, hand in hand, to work at the world’s problems. That, to me, has always been one of the very great benefits that the land-grant college has given to our daily life—the fact that the men and women have worked together at the world’s problems.”
The “men and women” Bevier is speaking of here aren’t just academics and students. They’re people from all walks of life. Bevier spent decades as a scholar working with people from farms and rural communities in Illinois. So we shouldn’t interpret what she’s talking about as an expression of the familiar concept of “public service,” where academics and students do things for a passive and needy public. What she’s talking about is public work. Work that taps and engages and develops the civic agency, talents, and capacities of everyone, inside and outside the academy. Work that’s grounded in the “daily life” of the people, where “the world’s problems” play out in ways that women and men can do something about. Work of this kind involves the practice of a democratic-minded civic science that is of, by, and for the commonwealth. And students who participate in it learn lessons that hold academic as well as civic value, as they make a difference in the real life of communities and our broader society.
Though it’s not widely known or appreciated, engagement in public work is the very heart and soul of the “democracy’s college” tradition in the land-grant system. It’s central to the “expression of democracy in higher education” that land-grant institutions have embodied, however imperfectly. But it’s no longer limited to the land-grant system. The American Commonwealth Partnership (ACP) is a testament to this. Launched in the year that marks the sesquicentennial of the first Morrill Act, this new initiative represents a reclaiming of our civic mission, and a recommitment to and reworking of the democracy’s college tradition and spirit across the whole of American higher education. And not to be missed, it also represents one of the most promising means of fixing this nation’s broken politics, by awakening and engaging the idealism, intelligence, and productive creativity of our nation’s youth and their academic and community partners.
Scott Peters is an associate professor of education at Cornell University. His latest book is Democracy and Higher Education: Traditions and Stories of Civic Engagement (Michigan State University Press, 2010).