Hope and Higher Education — The Powers of Public Narratives

By Harry Boyte

What happens when colleges become “part of” communities, not simply “partners with” communities, overcoming the culture of detachment that took hold in higher education after World War II, described by Thomas Ehrlich, a pioneer of civic engagement?

Such a shift means colleges and universities act as anchoring institutions, part of the “barn raising” which Nancy Cantor recently called for. In barn raising, colleges help communities to address challenges ranging from economic development to school reform.

In some cases re-integration of colleges, their staff and students into places can lead to even more expansive change. When colleges and universities and their members take on the role of “agents and architects of democracy,” envisioned in The Wingspread Declaration in 1999, the process can generate new public narratives through which communities are able to re-imagine their futures.

There is a rich if largely unknown history which shows the potential. And there are examples today, like a consortium of colleges and universities in upstate New York, working with towns to spark a renaissance of the region, using the rubric “Rust to Green.”

In years of researching effective citizen action, I have often been struck by the powers of public narratives. In Brooklyn in the 1980s, East Brooklyn Churches, an African American community organization, launched the nation’s most ambitious low-income housing effort. The key was a new public narrative.

Community residents, using the story of the Old Testament leader who led the people in rebuilding Jerusalem’s walls, named their effort Nehemiah Homes. “The story connected our work to something real, not something bogus,” explains Mike Gecan, the local organizer. “It got it out of the ‘housing’ field and the idea that you have to have 35 consultants to do anything. It made it more than housing.”

The heart of such narratives is a shift in collective identity from victim to agent of change. Such narratives also require skilled organizing to make them come alive — citizen politics attentive to power, diverse interests, and relationship building. Local people need to own the stories, rooted in collective life. Such stories bring together previously divided groups. They counter the idea that making money, hyper-competition, and celebrity status are the ultimate goals, with the vision of a different future animiated by democratic, egalitarian, cooperative and inclusive values.

Such stories also challenge trends in higher education. On the one hand, colleges and universities tout their role in providing expertise to those seen as in need of answers. Historian Scott Peters has called this the “heroic meta-narrative” of higher education’s role.

On the other hand, social theorists in recent decades have developed what Peters calls the “tragic counter-narrative,” in which higher education is the oppressor. As the anthropologist James Scott put it about land grant colleges, “The unspoken logic… of agricultural modernization was one of consolidating the power of central institutions and diminishing the autonomy of cultivators and their communities.”

Peters has unearthed an alternative to both, what he calls the “prophetic counter-narrative,” in which land grant college faculty and students work as part of communities. In this story, faculty and students as well as other citizens combine practical problem solving with narrative imagination.

Thus, land grant colleges once helped to organize a “Little Country Theater Movement,” local theaters across the Midwest designed to help communities tell their own stories. Alfred Arvold, on the faculty at North Dakota Agricultural College, began the movement in 1914 convinced that “there are literally millions of people in country communities today whose abilities have been hidden, simply because they have never had an opportunity to give expression to their talents.” The theater projects fed later populist movements.

Peters has been part of the Rust to Green consortium in upstate New York that revives this approach. The consortium, including Cornell, Colgate, Utica College, Hamilton College, and Mohawk Valley Community College, is working in Utica and the Mohawk Valley, with plans to expand to other cities.

Rust to Green holds that stories of community decline in the “Rust Belt,” a stretch of communities which have experienced loss of manufacturing jobs, declining populations, growing poverty and other ills, can be reversed by multidimensional work to build sustainable and resilient communities and economies. The rubric is the brainchild of Paula Horrigan, associate professor of landscape architecture at Cornell who identifies with the land grant public work tradition.

Horrigan has long been skeptical of colleges “serving communities” from on high, or simply “researching” their problems. She believes that higher education work should always be in a process of “decentering,” and measures success by the degree to which the work is able to move energy away from academic experts and towards communities. She uses the metaphor of a growing tree in which the center dies out and outer layers grow and thicken, transporting nutrients and becoming increasingly life-filled and generative. She sees herself as “part of” the region and its communities, not “partners with.”

 A Brookings Institute study in 2007 identified area towns as having hidden assets and “high potential for renewed prosperity.” Building on this message, Rust to Green began in 2009 with a three year federal grant. Then mayor David Roefaro was enthusiastic. “I want to make Utica one of the greenest cities in upstate New York and our affiliation with Cornell is going to do that,” he said.

The metaphor is highly catalytic. The Mohawk Valley Food Action Network, using the Rust to Green logo, includes dozens of partners — schools, local producers, farmers’ markets, cooperative extension, local governments. It aims to strengthen local farmers and businesses, building on local knowledge and creating a healthy, sustainable food system.

One World Garden in Utica, also part of Rust to Green, is organized by a coalition including immigrants, the Mohawk Valley Center for Refugees, artists and others. It combines local food production, a park space, and art, highlighting the contributions of refugees and immigrants, seeking to counter the idea of “threat” with possibility.

Public officials have also broadened their views. “We’re now looking at municipal projects in a new way,” explains Bob Sullivan, former Urban Renewal Agency director and member of the Rust to Green Core. “We’re looking at storm water mitigation, permeable pavement and all sorts of things that could be considered green.”

Rust to Green is only two years old, but the metaphor has shown strong appeal. As one faculty member active in the consortium told Horrigan, “People don’t know much about our campus center, but everyone knows something is afoot in Rust to Green.”

Perhaps most important for democracy in New York and elsewhere is the revival of the “democracy’s college” narrative of democracy, different than either the unbridled market or government-centered action.

As Peters put it, democracy’s colleges aimed not only at “material well-being for all.” They also promoted a “democratic ideal (and practice) of self-rule, through which the common people, functioning as citizens, work as cooperative producers not only of the commonwealth, but also of the culture and politics of their own neighborhoods and communities.

This is the story of democracy as a journey, not a destination. It is needed once again.

Harry C. Boyte is National Coordinator of the American Commonwealth Partnership, director of the Center for Democracy and Citizenship at Augsburg College, and a Senior Fellow at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs.

 *This article originally appeared on huffingtonpost.com

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Graduate From College, Get a Great Job… Is That All There Is to Higher Education?

By Jean Johnson

With large majorities of Americans concerned about college costs, student debt, and the still pitiful job market, it certainly seems time for higher education to reinvent itself. And since a diploma and a good job can shape a person’s entire future, shouldn’t higher education’s number one mission be preparing students for promising careers at affordable tuition prices?

That seems reasonable enough on the face of it, but to borrow from the sultry songstress Peggy Lee, is that all there is to higher education? Shouldn’t we expect more?

Of course, colleges and universities, community colleges and trade schools can and do pursue multiple missions — preparing students for careers, expanding opportunity, advancing knowledge, bolstering citizenship and public service, and others. But it is also true that institutions need to make choices about their aspirations and where to invest their time and resources, and those choices can be tough ones when money is tight. What is the right balance between preparing students for good jobs and the other missions higher education could take on?

A lightening quick tour of higher education history suggests that broader civic, social, and economic missions have often taken a front seat, even during economic hard times.

• When Thomas Jefferson founded the University of Virginia in 1819, he wanted to do more than educate the next generation of professionals and members of the clergy. In Jefferson’s own lustrous prose: “This institution of my native state, the hobby of my old age, will be based on the illimitable freedom of the human mind, to explore and to expose every subject susceptible of its contemplation.”
• Later, federal land grants helped states build colleges nationwide. By teaching agriculture, science, and mechanics (along with traditional studies), these schools improved the prospects of the students who graduated, but the goal was to propel the entire country forward.
• College extension services, launched in 1914, taught farmers modern agricultural techniques and tackled problems like soil conservation and electrification. These services also worked to support “rural democracy” and “develop communities ‘ capacities for cooperative action.” During the Depression, extension home economists helped rural homemakers improve their skills in canning, poultry production, and home nursing, making it easier for farm families to get through the economic crisis.
• After World War II, the GI Bill gave returning soldiers support for up to four years of college, plus money for books, fees, and a “monthly subsistence allowance.” That helped individual GI’s build good lives for themselves and their families, but it also gave the United States the best-educated work force in the world and boosted our remarkable post-war economy.

So what goals should higher education highlight today? The question is timely because many Americans are skeptical about higher education’s present mission, effectiveness, and even its motives. Some critics see higher education as a mature industry that sorely needs new thinking, one that is “ripe for hostile takeovers.” Much of the public worries that higher education has forsaken its educational mission and is now “like most businesses,” caring mainly “about the bottom line;” 60 percent of Americans think so, andyoung people who have attended college are even more likely to say this. Within higher education, many fear that it is losing (or abandoning) its role as a repository and guardian of human knowledge, inquiry, and learning.

There is an intense debate about the future of higher education among elite groups, but it rarely spills out of think tanks, foundations, and the pages of the New York Times book review. Maybe it’s time for a broader, more inclusive dialogue.

This year, two non-partisan groups — the National Issues Forums and the American Commonwealth Partnership — are jumpstarting such a dialogue through a project called Shaping Our Future. It will bring people on campus — faculty, students, administrators — together with employers, K-12 educators, and members of the broader public to discuss the future of the nation’s colleges and universities. Over 60 campuses, from the Maricopa County Community College system in Arizona to Hofstra University in New York have scheduled forums, and many more are anticipated.

Participants will deliberate questions like these: How important is it for higher education to help the country maintain its lead in science and technology, and what would it take to accomplish that goal? What about insuring that more people have the chance to go to college and graduate? What about reinforcing core values such as integrity, responsibility, citizenship, and public service? What about helping people living in a diverse, evolving nation learn to understand one another better and work together to solve problems?

Is talking about higher education’s mission and its connections and interconnections with the broader society really so important? I would argue that it is. Putting questions on the table and inviting people to discuss them is one way our country works toward change. But even more important is what could happen if we don’t talk about our choices in higher education.

Colleges and universities could become more detached from the taxpayers and communities that support them. Attempting to cut costs and respond to critics, institutions could end up pursuing short-sighted, top-down changes that aren’t well understood by students and faculty and may not be in line with what most Americans intend and want.

Given the paramount role higher education has played — and will play — in the American story, not talking seriously about its mission in our collective future could be a miscalculation of the first order.

This post originally appeared on Huffington Post.


DemocracyU Video Project: Bringing the Voices of the Citizen Dialogues into a National Conversation

 

SHAPING OUR FUTURE: Dialogues on the Purposes of Higher Education

Shaping Our Future citizen dialogue on the purposes of higher education was launched at the National Press Club on September 4, 2012. The dialogues, organized by local groups and promoted by the American Commonwealth Partnership and the National Issues Forums, will take place in communities across America in 2012-13.  The DemocracyU Video Project brings the stories and experiences of the citizen dialogues into a national conversation through social media.

We invite you to participate!

Here are the details:

  • Each video is no more than 3 minutes
  • Use any recording device (cell phone, camcorder, cameras etc.)
  • Introduce yourself and make a short statement (e.g. “We have just had a Shaping Our Future Forum with citizens from Winona, Minnesota. I am interviewing Laura Lake.”)
  • For best quality, find a quiet area and hold the recording device close enough that your subject’s head nearly fills the frame, and her/his voice records clearly. Use the highest quality setting on your device.

Use these questions to guide the interview:

  1. Who are you (e.g. a student, community member, faculty, etc.)? Then ask at least one of these:
  2. Is there a story from the forum that shows the importance of this conversation?
  3. Is there a story that shows why it’s important to have the community involved?
  4. Is there a plan or a project that comes next?

Upload the video to your personal YouTube page.  Send the link to video@democracyu.us , plus share your video here:  www.youtube.com/user/DemocracyU/ .

Include a one line to two line description of the video, including any relevant links to websites. The DemocracyU YouTube site will become a mosaic of voices in dialogue about the purposes of higher education.  The video collection will be promoted on social media and will complement and enlarge the Shaping Our Future dialogues.  For questions, please contact video@democracyu.us


Citizenship Education for a Polarized Society

Originally posted on Huffington Post.

By Harry Boyte

In the Republican convention last week, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice struck a discordant note. As New York Times columnist David Brooks put it, “She put less emphasis on commerce and more on citizenship…The powerful words in her speech were not ‘I’ and ‘me’ [but] ‘we’ and us’ – citizens who emerge out of and exist as participants in a great national project.”

In a culture of polarized politics, quick fixes, and success defined as making money, how might citizenship become an ethos across the aisle, not an exception?

We need “a different kind of citizenship education,” more about creating civic identities as agents and architects of democracy than about knowing the branches of government or volunteering now and then.

To spread such education, we need colleges and universities to rejoin our shared civic life, to become “part of” communities, not “partners with” communities.

In recent years, a chorus of political and civic leaders have called for strengthened citizenship education. But their view is limited. In most efforts, reflected in new legislation strengthening high school “civics” in Florida and elsewhere, the main citizen role is voting, with a nod to voluntarism. Democracy is largely the work of government.

A different view of citizenship education for today’s polarized society emerges from Dorothy Cotton’s new book, If Your Back’s Not Bent, whose publication on September 4th Bill Muse and I noted in a recent posting. In the book, Cotton tells “the unknown story of the civil rights movement.”

Dorothy Cotton directed the Citizenship Education Program for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. An African American battling the terrible legacy of slavery, Cotton nonetheless shared the view of citizens as the foundational agents of a democratic society voiced by Thomas Jefferson, a slave owner as well as author of the Declaration of Independence. As Jefferson put it, “I know of no safe repository of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education.”

Benjamin Barber made the point succinctly, summing up arguments we both made, January 14, 1995,advising Bill Clinton on his State of the Union, in a Camp David meeting: “Democracy can survive inept governments. It can’t survive inept citizens.”

In a compelling mix of personal narrative, little known stories of the civil rights movement, and political philosophy, Cotton gives living testimony to the idea of everyday citizens as transformative agents of change. She tells how more than 8,000 people from the South, by and large African Americans with a handful of poor white, were trained, mainly at SCLC’s “Dorchester Center” in McIntosh Georgia, from 1960 to 1968. Participants came to think of themselves as active citizens, not victims.

They returned home to their communities and trained tens of thousands more, who in turn transformed southern communities, impacting the nation and the world.

The curriculum mixed skills of community organizing and consciousness-raising. “Once people accepted that they did not have to live as victims – the goal of CEP training – they changed how they saw and felt about themselves,” writes Cotton. She quotes Mrs. Topsy Eubanks, who described the transformation with vernacular eloquence: “The cobwebs commenced a-moving from my brain.”

People developed a view of government as “ours,” not “theirs.” And they developed a sense of new collective efficacy. “We moved away from thinking of ourselves as isolated and alone, and instead went out into the wider community with our work. Ultimately we were able to envision ‘community’ as including people very different from ourselves.”

The communities which sustained this spirit became sustaining local cultures of empowerment. We need such cultures today on a large scale. But for higher education to contribute at this crucial point in American history, is a challenge.

Tom Ehrlich, former president of Indiana University, a key leader in the movement for higher education to reclaim its public purposes, tells a story of Stanford University that illustrates the obstacles.

In the late 1920s and ’30s, Stanford freshman were required to take a year-long course called “Problems of Citizenship,” one-fourth of the first-year curriculum. It was based on the view that education for civic leadership should be a primary goal.

In 1928, Professor Edgar Robinson told students that “citizenship is the second calling of every man and woman. You will observe as we go forward that our constant endeavor will be to relate what we do and say to the facts of the world from which you came and in which all of you will live, and to correlate the various aspects of the modern scene, so that it will appear that citizenship is not a thing apart, something to be thought of only occasionally or left to the energies of a minority of our people, but that its proper understanding is at the very root of our daily life.”

Robinson reported some 60 other institutions had developed similar courses. He hoped that many others would follow.

So why did such education for civic leadership disappear from Stanford and elsewhere?

Ehrlich argues that after WW II, “disinterested, disengaged analysis became the dominant mode of academic inquiry, and quantitative methods became the primary tools of that analysis. Students were no longer encouraged to become politically engaged. They were to be observers, not participants.”

The culture of detachment has spread far beyond the walls of colleges and universities in ways that show the hidden power of higher education. Kettering Foundation research has shown that institutions such as local schools and nonprofits have lost their community roots, with an increasing focus on “client base” and “service delivery.”

In the nonpartisan “Reinventing Citizenship” project which I directed with the White House Domestic Policy Council from 1993 to 1995, prelude to our Camp David meeting, we analyzed the causes of the growing gap between lay citizens and government, and found that hostility to government can be traced in important ways to a parallel loss of civic roots. Abraham Lincoln’s government “of the people, by the people,” grounded in the life of communities, has given way to customer service. People have come to see government as “them,” not “us.” And citizenship has come to focus on knowledge of government or episodic good deeds, not identity and a way of life.

It will take far ranging change to turn around these dynamics. But resources for more transformative citizenship education are emerging in communities and colleges as earlier described. And the American Commonwealth Partnership, the new coalition of colleges and others committed to the public purposes of higher education and citizen-centered democracy, is developing strategies for integrating colleges and universities into the life of communities through initiatives such as “civic science.”

We need a new kind of transformative citizenship education for the polarized, quick fix society of the 21st century. This means, also recalling the great insight of Martin Luther King:

“We are tied together in the single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality.”

Harry Boyte is National Coordinator of the American Commonwealth Partnership, Director of the Center for Democracy and Citizenship at Augsburg College, and a Senior Fellow at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs.