By Harry C. Boyte
In a coincidence of history, President Obama took the oath of office on the Martin Luther King Holiday, January 21, 2013. He sounded a call for collective action, with his hand on Martin Luther King’s bible.
Like King a half century ago in his “I Have a Dream” speech, Obama employed a language of citizenship, declaring that all must work together as citizens to advance the founding creed of the nation and to meet challenges of today. Obama has immersed himself in study of the black church tradition of call and response, which King brilliantly embodied. And in the citizen response to Obama’s call, we can use lessons from the civil rights movement.
Martin Luther King is rightly remembered this year as a dreamer. But to see King only as a dreamer is to miss his greatness.
Stretched out on the floor in a sleeping bag in my father’s hotel room, I heard King practice the speech in the early morning hours of August 28th. My father had just gone on staff of King’s organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the only white on the executive committee. Dad called me, hitch-hiking in California before college, and told me to come back. “We’ve planned a march to get the attention of the nation,” he said.
In “I Have a Dream,” King strikes a bold tone. “There will be neither rest nor tranquility in America until the Negro is granted his citizenship rights,” King said. King’s Dream speech was also a call to citizenship, to act with the welfare of the whole society in mind:
“In the process of gaining our rightful place we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. Again and again we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force.”
King lived what community organizers describe as the tension between the world as it is and the world as it should be. This is hard to do. The strong tendency is to split the two. On the one hand we have our ideals and those who embody them. On the other there is the vicious, violent world and of course the evil doers who are seen as its agents.
King refused this Manichean division of the world. He rooted his dream in the soil of human fallibility. He was fully aware of the propensities toward pettiness, jealousy, meanness in everyone – including himself. It was his ability to dream coupled with his rootedness in the human condition with its full complexity which made Martin Luther King great.
This rootedness of King is often missing in today’s tributes. The current controversy over the King Memorial in Washington illustrates the pattern.
In 2011, the poet Maya Angelou told the Washington Post she was upset at the paraphrase of a quote on the Memorial. The quote, from a sermon King gave on March 4, 1968, read: “If you want to say that I was a drum major say that I was a drum major for justice. Say that I was a drum major for peace. I was a drum major for righteousness.” On the Memorial the inscription was shortened to read “I was a drum major for justice, peace, and righteousness.”
Angelou said, “The quote makes Dr. Martin Luther King look like an arrogant twit. He never would have said that of himself. He said, ‘you might say it.’ It minimizes the man. It makes him seem less than the humanitarian he was.” After a wave of such criticisms, the Park Service agreed to remove the inscription.
I have high regard for Maya Angelou and her writing. But she was wrong about King.
The sermon wasn’t creating a hypothetical. King begins the sermon querying those who condemn James and John for their request, recounted in the 10th chapter of Mark, to sit at Jesus’ left and right hands. King says:
“Why would they make such a selfish request? Before we condemn them too quickly, let us look calmly and honestly at ourselves, and we will discover that we too have those same basic desires for recognition, for importance. There is deep down within all of us kind of a drum major instinct—a desire to be out front, a desire to lead the parade, a desire to be first.”
King continues, the problem is not the Drum Major Instinct. It’s that the follow up question, for what? is rarely asked. That’s the meaning of the quote which was taken off the King Memorial. King’s “for what” drew deeply from conversations with co-workers in the movement. For instance, Bayard Rustin, organizer of the March on Washington and long-time adviser to King, was indispensable to creating the platform for “I Have a Dream.” Rustin’s question was always how to move from the world as it is to the world as it should be, or, put differently, how to put power behind vision.
By the mid-sixties, Rustin had become alarmed about the growing tendency of young activists, both black and white, to substitute “posture and volume” for strategy. In 1965 in an article in Commentary, “From Protest to Politics,” he challenged this tendency and proposed an alternative. “The civil rights movement must evolve from a protest movement into a full-fledged social movement—an evolution calling its very name into question,” he said. “It is now concerned not merely with removing the barriers to full opportunity but with achieving the fact of equality.”
Rustin argued that the movement for equality requires institutional transformation, not simply moral exhortation. I see the civic transformations of colleges and universities, promoted by the American Commonwealth Partnership in partnership with the White House and the Department of Education, as examples.
Similarly, King also often visited the Dorchester Center in Georgia, where he heard stories and drew inspiration from those being trained in SCLC’s Citizenship Education Program (CEP) to create citizenship schools. Septima Clark, an early teacher, developed CEP’s vision statement: “to broaden the scope of democracy to include everyone and deepen the concept to include every relationship.” Such broadening involved change in identity from victim to agent of change, a story told vividly in the book by CEP director Dorothy Cotton, If Your Back’s Not Bent: The Role of the Citizenship Education Program in the Civil Rights Movement. I worked for CEP as a college student.
King is remembered in his last years for his fiery criticism to the Vietnam War and poverty in America. But we need to recall that he was also a Drum Major – and co-worker — in the movement for equality and for broadening the scope of democracy.
His marching orders have never been more relevant.
By Harry C. Boyte
At his re-election rally on November 7, President Obama said, “Tonight you voted for action, not politics as usual.” He declared his intent to work with leaders from both parties “to meet the challenges we can only solve together.” These were eloquent words. But to make much progress on long run challenges of the nation will take civic revitalization.
We need active citizens who learn to work across differences in every corner of our nation if we are to see much change in the Washington culture – or build a successful 21st century democracy. This will mean deepening the meaning of citizenship itself. We need to revitalize the American understanding of citizenship as expressed through many kinds of work. And this will require building a movement to tie work preparation to every aspect of education.
From the very beginning Obama made citizenship a cause. In Springfield, Ill., on Feb. 10, 2007, announcing his first campaign for the presidency, he said, “This campaign has to be about reclaiming the meaning of citizenship, restoring our sense of common purpose.” In his victory rally on November 7, he argued again that “the role of citizens in our democracy does not end with your vote. America’s never been about what can be done for us. It’s about what can be done by us together through the hard and frustrating but necessary work of self-government.”
On January 10th, at a White House event called “For Democracy’s Future,” hosted by the White House Office of Public Engagement, the Obama administration advanced the president’s civic vision. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan announced that educational policy will include preparing young people for “citizenship,” as well as “college” and “career.” A new “road map,” Advancing Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement, invites a broad public discussion.
Adding this C, for citizenship, to preparation for “college” and “career” has long been a goal of groups like Campus Compact, the American Democracy Project, the Association of American Colleges and Universities, and the Civic Mission of the Schools Coalition.
The White House meeting also launched the American Commonwealth Partnership, a coalition of educational and civic groups which works with the Department of Education in order to expand education’s civic mission beyond conventional understandings. ACP incubates initiatives based on a citizen-centered view of democracy, aiming at making higher education “part of” the life of communities and regions, not simply “partners with.”
A crucial next step, we believe, is to integrate the “three C’s.” High schools and colleges need to prepare students through college for citizen careers.
A growing body of evidence reinforces the observation of UCLA educational theorist and researcher Mike Rose: “Young people who find little of interest in the traditional curriculum can be intrigued by the world of work.” A handful of pioneers in combining academic study with work preparation have shown the power of this approach, especially for low income and minority young people. In the Chicago High School for Agricultural Sciences, a public school on a 78 acre farm in the Southwestern corner of the city, students learn math, science, English and writing through the processes of planting, harvesting, marketing, and selling vegetables. Juniors and seniors enroll in a semester long class that focuses on the city’s flower garden show (they are the only high school involved in this event), learning horticulture, animal science, agricultural mechanics, economics, food science, communications and business. “Connecting work and academics makes a huge difference in terms of ways students look at education,” says Lucille Shaw, assistant principal. “Through all of their academic classes as well as technical studies students can blend and apply concepts. They learn to ask how and why it’s going to be beneficial. What is this going to do to better my life, and help someone else? It has to be real.” With a student body more than 60% African American and Hispanic, the Ag School has won national attention for its success in college preparation and student achievement – 87 percent graduate and go to college. Fifty-nine percent meet or exceed the Prairie State Achievement exams which test for reading, English, math, science, and writing, compared to 28% in the Chicago district as a whole.
Such examples confound narrow definitions of intelligence and overly sharp divisions between kinds of knowledge, while responding to young people’s desires “to be somebody, to possess agency and competence, to have a grasp on the forces that affect them,” as Rose puts it. They revitalize older traditions of “civic business” and “citizen professional” which I recently described.
But today, examples of education which combine work preparation, citizenship, and academics are rare in either high schools or college. They also face obstacles.
As Tom Ehrlich has described, schools such as Stanford University once educated students for “citizenship as a second calling,” turning out citizen teachers, citizen business owners and others. Land grant colleges, called “democracy’s colleges,” promoted public work in communities through cooperative extension. Intellectuals like John Dewey and Jane Addams stressed the tie between work and citizenship
By the 1950s, “civic professionalism” had shifted to “disciplinary professionalism” in the phrase of historian Thomas Bender.
Today, most institutions distinguish between professional and workforce preparation, on the one hand, and liberal arts and sciences, on the other. In the society, citizenship expressed through work has sharply eroded. Thus, the congressionally mandated National Conference on Citizenship, which assesses the civic health of communities, includes no indicators connected to work or the workplace. The assumption is that citizenship is off-hours activity.
Yet in a time when “jobs” are widely discussed, recent theory and pedagogies begin to bring work back in. Ideas like “citizen professionalism,” “education for civic agency” and “civic science” appear in curricula. The Anchoring Institution Task Force, with more than 190 members, promotes schools as “anchoring institutions” in communities, where students, faculty, and staff work collaboratively with community partners. This holds potential to strengthen civic meanings of many jobs on and off campus.
Building on such developments, David Scobey, dean of the New School of Public Engagement, recently called for a new emphasis on work throughout higher education:
“We need to think about work as a key arena of reflective preparation, doing for work what we did for service learning. We should enable all students to reflect on their work experience and be intentional about it. We need a totally new model of where work fits into students’ growth, bringing together civic learning, work and student courses of study.”
ACP’s next stage is to answer this call. We need to integrate the three “C’s.”
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.
By Harry C. Boyte
In the view of many, attack ads and internet tools that inflame voter passions have replaced problem-solving and removed the human element in politics. But here and there, examples of “a different kind of politics” based on building public relationships and public work push back against polarizing politics. Higher education can claim a key leadership role in spreading these.
Though support for Obama among those concerned about partisan wrangling has eroded, in fact his campaign this year suggests lessons for a different kind of politics. There are also insights from earlier histories of democratic movements and work with public qualities that point to sustaining a different politics, for the long term.
Below the surface of the visible ad campaign, the Obama ground game has sought to re-embed elections in face to face relationships, beyond sound bites. As Jeremy Bird, director the Obama field operation, told Ryan Lizza, the ground game has taken the animating principle of face to face contact in the 2008 election to large scale.
During the 2008 campaign, Bird, a student of community organizer and Harvard professor Marshall Ganz, directed Obama operations in South Carolina and Ohio. He resisted the common “mobilizing” approach which demonizes the opposition. Rather his field operation rooted work in local sites like barber shops and beauty parlors, spread the idea that everyone — including McCain supporters — deserves respect and has a story, and encouraged local leaders to act as organizers.
In 2012, elements of this approach have gone national. Barbershops and beauty salons are campaign centers. Conference calls are organized specifically for barbers and hairdressers. Lizza writes that “from his study of the 2008 campaign, Bird concluded that the single most effective medium was not TV ads or glossy mail but contact from an enthusiastic human being.”
If we are to move to cultural change beyond partisan warfare, citizen politics also has to point beyond elections, gaining support from more than the “fifty percent plus one” formula. Lessons from the civil rights movement are worth recalling.
Thelma Craig, an African American leader in the movement in southern Alabama, told me that “Real change in culture takes place when the overwhelming majority of the population learns to see it as in their own interests.” As a college student in the southern civil rights movement, I saw first-hand the role which barbers and hairdressers, as well as clergy, teachers, bus drivers and others played in such culture change. Earlier this year Blase Scarnati and I described how her “different kind of politics” finds grounding in settings around Northern Arizona University.
Histories of earlier democratic movements underscore the point.
In his autobiography, Making of a Public Man, former Vice President Hubert Humphrey traced his career to his father’s drug store in Doland, South Dakota, at the heart of civic life, part of the populist ferment of the Midwest in the 1920s and 1930s. “In his store there was eager talk about politics, town affairs, and religion,” Humphrey wrote. “I’ve listened to some of the great parliamentary debates of our time, but have seldom heard better discussions of basic issues than I did as a boy standing on a wooden platform behind the soda fountain.”
The store created a cross-partisan civic root system. “Dad was a Democrat among friends and neighbors who took their Republicanism – along with their religion – very seriously.” His father became the highly regarded mayor of the town, but saw elective office as only one of his contributions. The store functioned as lending library and cultural center – music came from the window of the second floor, from his father’s rickety phonograph. The store also catalyzed action. “When most of the town wanted to sell the municipally owned power plant to a private utility, Dad…fought the idea tooth and nail. I was twelve years old…he would take me to the evening meetings of the council, install me in a chair by a corner window, and then do battle, hour after hour.”
In short, the drug store was a public space sustained by his father as a citizen businessman, who championed a commonwealth of public goods, and organized with other citizens.
He also mentored his son in the civic possibilities of small business, of vital importance today as well.
In a Senate debate about box stores in 1952, Humphrey declared that the purpose of small business was not cheap prices but survival of democracy. “Do we want an America where the economic market place is filled with a few Frankensteins and giants?” he asked. “Or do we want an America where there are thousands upon thousands of small entrepreneurs, independent businesses, and landholders who can stand on their own feet and talk back to their Government or anyone else?”
Humphrey saw the civic side of business as tied to citizens as the agents of democracy, embodied in the Preamble to the Constitution with its message of “we the people.” He touted this through his career, challenging audiences looking for saviors. “Government isn’t supposed to do all of this,” Humphrey declared on February 22, 1967, in a Phoenix television interview, in response to a caller who asked him to fix the problems with politics. “If you think politics is corrupt, get your bar of political ivory soap and clean it up! Get out there and get roughed up a little bit in the world of reality. Join the community action groups, volunteer your services.”
We need a new generation of civic leaders like the barbers and hairdressers of the civil rights movement — or Hubert Humphrey’s father a generation before.
Changes in “upstream” institutions like colleges and universities will be crucial as they reorient themselves to education for civic agency through public work. We also need people in many places who turn their jobs into public work, and make their worksites public spaces.
These will be the architects and agents of democracy’s future in 21st century America.
Harry C. Boyte is Director of the Center for Democracy and Citizenship at Augsburg College, a Senior Fellow at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs, and National Coordinator of the American Commonwealth Partnership.
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
By Kaylesh Ramu and David Hoffman
Given the rancorous tone of current public debate and the gridlock in government, college students are understandably skeptical about politics and public life. Our polarized legislators seem unable to discuss issues with civility, and policy only seems to be made when one party has a supermajority and compromise is unnecessary.
This pessimistic view may be the received wisdom, but we see reasons for hope on many college campuses. At the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, students are helping lead the way to a new kind of politics that bridges difference and strengthens communities.
One team of Jewish and Muslim students worked together with administrators to bring more kosher and halal options to campus eateries. Other teams are working with campus partners to redesign spaces, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, encourage healthy lifestyle choices and boost campus spirit. The Student Government Association long ago leapt beyond the “let’s pretend” model of student government to become a catalyst for students’ creativity and engagement and a national model for sparking innovation. Instead of treating students as constituents to be served and then solicited at election time, UMBC‘s student government recognizes them as people with differing views and backgrounds whose talents and passions can be brought together for the common good.
On a campus with UMBC’s diversity, disagreements are inevitable. The work of building partnerships and allocating scarce resources can be messy and complicated. This is where “politics” comes in: not as a dirty word for the power-seeking tactics of political elites, but as a set of skills everyone can use to find common ground and get things done. The kind of generative politics practiced at UMBC, supported by a culture that celebrates innovation and resourcefulness, brings faculty, staff, students, alumni and community partners together to envision alternative futures and solve problems.
Indeed, a growing chorus of voices is calling for greater civic engagement in higher education to help more students build these skills. The influential report, “A Crucible Moment: College Learning and Democracy’s Future,” issued earlier this year by the National Task Force on Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement, urges institutions to look beyond conventional civic engagement efforts focused on voting and voluntary community service. Although both are important, the authors say, “even together they are insufficient to offset the civic erosion we are experiencing.” Instead, schools should help students learn complex civic skills through experience, using strategies such as deliberative dialogues, service-learning and collective problem-solving.
Another new report, “Advancing Civic Learning and Engagement in Democracy: A Roadmap and Call to Action,” published by the U.S. Department of Education, argues that the nation’s return on its investment of hundreds of billions of dollars in students’ education must be measured not just by students’ productive employment but also their capacity to work together to “solve collective problems creatively and collaboratively.” The report calls on schools to treat civic education and engagement as “essential parts of the core academic mission” rather than relegating them to the sidelines, and to pursue forms of engagement that are “more ambitious and participatory than in the past.”
Two promising new projects are about to carry these ideas forward in exciting ways. At UMBC, we recently launched BreakingGround, a campus-wide initiative to embed opportunities for civic learning and collaborative problem-solving even more broadly and deeply in our curriculum and co-curricular activities. BreakingGround features a new website (breakingground.umbc.edu) where we can share our stories, discuss issues and find new connections.
This article originally appeared on www.baltimoresun.com
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.
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:
- Who are you (e.g. a student, community member, faculty, etc.)? Then ask at least one of these:
- Is there a story from the forum that shows the importance of this conversation?
- Is there a story that shows why it’s important to have the community involved?
- Is there a plan or a project that comes next?
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 firstname.lastname@example.org .