Democracy then and now

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.

On The Occupy Movement: Stop Demanding Change, Bring It

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, 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.

Why Civics Matters

By Matt Chick

I remember learning about “deliberative democracy” for the first time as an undergraduate student in one of my first political theory classes. After initial skepticism, I slowly became convinced. The more I read, the more I thought that this was something that could work. Citizens do need to be involved in their governments and their public policy making, I thought. Moreover, when talking to and working with each other, citizens could make a better world through the building of communities, the cultivation of respect for each other, and the development of their own intellectual capacities.

I became so enamored with the idea that I decided to attend graduate school in political theory—in search of a better world through democracy, deliberation, and citizenship. It is in graduate school that I have found a home for many of my views in civic studies and civic education. This is what is at the heart of civic studies: making the world better. I have a more positive view of academia than most—I believe that at the core of every discipline, is a notion that its work can make the world better. No academic discipline though, is as explicit about, committed to, or actively engaged in improving the world than civic studies. Civic studies consists in a variety of social scientists, political theorists, philosophers, and practitioners. They can be hard to find right now because they aren’t all in the same department, building, or even the same campus, but the discipline does exist and is gaining momentum.

The study of civics and a civic education are as crucial now as they ever were. They teach us about the problems in the world, but they also teach us that we can solve them. Our problems are shared projects that can be overcome, not impossible barriers. For civic studies, the goal is nothing less than improving the world and improving our lives.

Matt Chick is a graduate student in political theory at the University of Maryland, specializing in deliberative democracy, democratic theory, ethics, and epistemology. He is also an assistant managing editor for the academic journal, PEGS (The Political Economy of the Good Society), which is committed to linking democratic theory to practice and to civic studies more generally.



Democracy’s College

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).


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