Higher Education as a Movement

By David Mathews, President of  The Kettering Foundation

At signal points in their history, American colleges and universities have encountered an aroused polity — a citizenry that would rule itself. These encounters have given the institutions a political sense of mission. This happened around the time of the American Revolution. Colonial colleges taught piety and the classics until politically sensitive presidents like Ezra Stiles of Yale encouraged students to debate the issues of independence. It happened in Jefferson’s time, when state legislatures began to charter universities to prepare leaders for the new nation. It happened in the late nineteenth century, when land-grant institutions were created to serve America’s working citizens—its farmers and mechanics. The mandates for historically black institutions and community colleges emerged from similar encounters.

In higher education, significant changes have come from linkages with political and social movements outside the academy. As colleges and universities have responded to democracy’s claims, the institutions have enriched their missions. And they have been reminded that they are part of the greater causes of liberty and self-rule rather than just businesslike organizations to be judged only by their efficiency.

Are academic institutions today in touch with the citizenry that is angry about being shut out of the political system? Is there any connection between the quest for more “engaged” universities and the efforts at public engagement going on in government agencies, schools, and civic organizations? Maybe there should be.

David Mathews is President of the Kettering Foundation, a leading center for partnership partnerships which explore how democracy can work.