Realizing the Democratic Mission of Higher Education to Help Realize the Democratic Promise of America for All Americans

By Ira Harkavy

The founding purpose of both colonial colleges  and Historically Black Colleges and Universities was to educate young people for service to others.

Benjamin Franklin, when proposing the curriculum and goals for the college he founded, the University of Pennsylvania, emphatically declared that service was “the great aim and end of all learning.”  Fulfilling America’s democratic promise was the founding purpose of land-grant universities.  The defined urban-serving mission for higher education dates from the late 19th century, notably the founding of Johns Hopkins University, the first modern university, in 1876. Community colleges and regional colleges and universities were also founded for democratic purposes, embracing access and inclusion as core to their mission and goals.

Since the end of the Cold War, there has been a re-emergence of engaged scholarship, with leading academics and heads of colleges, universities and community colleges making the intellectual case. The argument is that higher educational institutions would better fulfill their core civic and academic functions, including advancing knowledge and learning, if they focused on improving conditions in their cities and local communities.   

It is more important than ever that higher educational institutions function as genuinely democratic, engaged civic institutions dedicated to advancing learning and knowledge to advance human welfare.  A radical democratic transformation of colleges and universities is crucial to the democratic transformation of America into a genuinely democratic society.

Higher educational institutions possess enormous resources (most significantly human resources), play a leading role in developing and transmitting new discoveries and educating societal leaders, and basically shape the schooling system.  As it currently operates, the American higher educational system does not contribute to the development of democratic communities and schools.

Among other deficiencies, American universities in particular significantly contribute to a schooling system that is elitist and hierarchical.  As John Dewey emphasized, participatory democratic schooling is mandatory for a participatory democratic society.  Simply put, unless the schooling system from pre-K through 20 is transformed into a participatory democratic schooling system, America will continue to fall far short of functioning as a decent, just, participatory democracy.  The transformation of higher education is crucial to the transformation of the entire schooling system and the education of creative, caring, contributing democratic citizens.

Ira Harkavy is the Director of the Netter Center for Community Partnerships at the University of Pennsylvania.

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