By Harry C. Boyte, American Commonwealth Partnership National Coordinator
At the forefront of change will be a monthly online newsletter about activities and developments in the American Commonwealth Partnership (ACP). ACP is an alliance of colleges and universities, schools and others dedicated to the democracy college ideal for all higher education. Democracy colleges have a signature identity of strong connection to their communities, where students learn skills of working across differences on public problems and discover the democratic possibilities of America.
I’ve just come back from San Antonio. Blase Scarnati, director of the First Year Seminar at Northern Arizona University, and I did a featured session on the American Commonwealth Partnership at the Academic Affairs meeting of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities (AASCU). This biannual meeting once simply involved provosts, but in the last several years larger teams have come to help facilitate change in their institutions.
We had intense conversations about ACP, within our session as well as before and after. Overall, the weekend underlined both challenges and opportunities for the sustained work of “building democracy colleges.”
We reported on results from field testing and focus groups organized by the National Issues Forums Institute (NIFI), ACP’s partner in launching a national discussion on higher education’s role in America’s future. The discussions in communities and on campuses will begin in April and continue through the year. The Department of Education has suggested several ways in which they might help.
Research last year on public views toward higher education and the first tests of the framework to be used in the discussions have generated important findings.
The draft framework presents several alternative roles for people to consider and discuss: higher education as an engine of economic growth; as a path to the middle class for those from disadvantaged backgrounds, and as a contributor to communities and the democracy. People want to integrate all three, not choose among them.
But most people also seem unaware of ways in which colleges and universities can play this third role. Since the last two decades have seen significant civic engagement work in higher education, this finding suggests a communications challenge, also highlighted by sympathetic participants from outside of higher education at the White House gathering, who commented that phrases commonly used to describe engagement – civic mission, civic engagement, and others – would not be easily understood by broader publics.
When the third option is illustrated with examples of higher education’s helping students and faculty learn skills and habits of collaborative work across differences on public problems, it generates surprise and animated discussions. Few people are aware that colleges or universities can play any role in teaching such skills. But across many differences, Americans are worried that “we are less and less able to work across differences to get anything done,” and fear for the future of the nation. Citizens are alarmed by Congress, but see polarization, inflammatory rhetoric and gridlock extending to every level of society and to all sorts of issues, from local zoning changes to reconstruction of the nation’s electrical grid.
Powerful forces feed the polarizing dynamic, including the formula, with roots in 1970s activism, which dominates most civic and political campaigns: identify an enemy; define issues as good versus bad; and use inflammatory language to shut down critical thought. Talk radio, cable news and the internet are potent operationalizing tools.
At San Antonio, there were strong examples of developing capacities for collaborative work that push back against such polarization. Blase Scarnati described the curricular innovations at NAU which involve hundreds of students in interdisciplinary Action Research Teams as part of the First Year Seminar. Students undertake public work projects on issues – immigration, weatherization, school bullying and others – in ways designed to teach such skills and build public relationships with diverse groups, connected to interdisciplinary learning. Over supper one evening I heard a rich account from Dayna Seelig, Associate Vice President for Academic Affairs at Morehead State University in Kentucky, about her own work over many years in teaching such skills and habits to students, faculty and staff of the university.
But such stories are rarely told in describing engagement efforts, and I believe that most examples of teaching and learning collaborative public work remain invisible. There is a need to shine a spotlight on education for such efforts. There are also strong institutional incentives for doing so in a time of public alarm about the fraying of American society and ebbing public support for higher education. The initiatives of ACP (deliberative dialogues, student organizing, Citizen Alum, civic science, pedagogies of engagement, community civic health, public scholarship, and policy) all help to foster education for collaborative public problem solving. But it will take sustained effort to make such teaching and learning central to institutional identity.
What might a “Democracy College Morrill Class” look like dedicated to this task? We suggested the possibility of a cohort of colleges and universities that make an explicit commitment for sustained collaborative learning to deepen curricular and co-curricular engagement in civic work. It is now only the seed of an idea, but even without detail there was considerable interest. Several administrators said that their institutions would definitely like to be involved.
Find more information about ACP here
At Syracuse University, there is a focused effort to embody democratic education through teaching, research, and engaged praxis. The rhetoric of publicly engaged scholarship is communicated through our vision, Scholarship in Action, and we purposefully enact the civic mission of higher education through hiringand admission practices, funded initiatives and within the scope of graduate education and research. Graduate education is an important site for the articulation and development of higher education’s role in participatory democracy because graduate students are the next generation of university professorate, administrators, and community partners.
Last October, The Chronicle of Higher Education published an article titled, Syracuse’ Slide where, among other things, Syracuse University’s commitment to publicly engaged scholarship was criticized as playing a role in lowering standards and reducing the national prestige of our university. This article mobilized graduate students from across campus, galvanizing us to speak back, across disciplinary boundaries, to the unfair depiction of our commitment to the university as a public good. The article deepened our level of solidarity as graduate students, stimulating an urgency about declaring the value of publicly engaged scholarship. Far from a slide, partnering with community stakeholders for the robust and dynamic production of knowledge is indicative of Syracuse’s Rise.
In my role as director for Imagining America: Artist and Scholars in Public Life’s Central New York, Publicly Active Graduate Education (PAGE), I e-mailed a copy of the article to PAGE members and suggested we write a collective letter to the editor. The response was overwhelming. Eighty-seven people identifying as “Syracuse’s Engaged Grads” answered the call offering to either help draft or sign the letter. The most remarkable feature of this response was the refusal of members of the Syracuse University graduate community to allow our University’s leadership in the new epistemology of reciprocal knowledge making to be mislabeled as anything but the most rigorous of scholarship. Using our own democratic practices as the foundation of our letter, we argued that:
• The building of knowledge is inseparable from practice;
• The inclusion of traditionally underrepresented students generates increased scholarly rigor by expanding perspectives;
• The dichotomous thinking that separates university and community knowledge is anachronistic;
• Community members are our partners and lived space is our laboratory and
• Engaged practice informs collective understandings and helps to create coalitions for civic action.
I am only one of the people who contributed to Syracuse’s Rise; it was a truly organic collaborative response to a gross mischaracterization facilitated by a far-reaching vehicle. I am proud to be a graduate student at an institution where our leadership, our professorate, and our student body are working to expand the paradigm of knowledge making to center the public good. When we consider our democracy in the United States today, there is no space for arguing if the University should engaged with the public; the time has passed for this question. Rather, it is for us, graduate students, to explore and develop new ways that our learning can cross disciplines and, quite literally, cross the street to respond to the problems and questions of the communities we rise up in. We believe that the strongest, richest, and most impactful knowledge making requires an honored place along the
continuum of scholarship for the acknowledgement of diverse scholarly forms and deep engagement.
A. Wendy Nastasi is a third year doctoral student in the Cultural Foundations of EducationDepartment in the School of Education at Syracuse University. Wendy is director of ImagingAmerica’s CNY PAGE program, and a member of IA’s Publicly Engaged Scholars study researchteam. As an instructor for SU’s Intergroup Dialogue Program, Wendy co-facilitates SOC/WGS 230:Intergroup Dialogue on Race and Ethnicity. Wendy’s research engages youth participatory actionresearch (YPAR) as a praxis for mobilizing urban high school students’ civic agency while centering youth’s voices and epistemic contributions. You can contact Wendy at either email@example.com or at cnypage.syr.edu.
The New York Times salutes the American Democracy Project and The Democracy Commitment — two of our leading partners — in it’s edition on February 5, 2012. The New York Times Knowledge Network, the educational division of The Times and co-founder of ADP, is publishing an insert on education.
The full back page of the insert recognizes the American Democracy Project and its community college sister organization, The Democracy Commitment. For more see: The New York Times Knowledge Network
Both organizations focus on preparing college students to be informed, engaged citizens for America’s democracy. The American Democracy Project and The Democracy Commitment are two of the founding organizations behind The American Commonwealth Partnership (which we gave life to via DemocracyU).
ACP is a broad alliance of higher education, P-12 schools and educational groups, philanthropies, businesses and others, part of a coordinated effort with the White House Office of Public Engagement, the Association of American Colleges and Universities, and the Department of Education, to begin a year of activity called, “For Democracy’s Future – Reclaiming Our Civic Mission.” ACP’s role is to “deepen the civic identity” of educational institutions, moving engagement from activities to strong commitments to education as a public good.