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 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.
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.
This article was originally published on huffington post.
By Harry Boyte and Bill Muse
By coincidence, September 4th marks two events. They seem unrelated, but both signal an enduring pattern of American history: Significant advances toward “a more perfect union” takes the work of the whole people, not simply the efforts of political leaders, experts, or famous personalities.
A concept of the late political theorist Hannah Arendt, the common table which both unites and separates us, helps to explain why.
September 4th is the release date for If Your Back’s Not Bent (Atria/Simon & Schuster), the long awaited history of the Citizenship Education Program (CEP) of the civil rights movement, written by Dorothy Cotton, its chief architect and director. Cotton was the only woman on the executive committee of Martin Luther King’s organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. The book is named for a talk by King at the end of a CEP training program which concluded, “If your back’s not bent, nobody can ride on it.”
In it, Cotton tells the story of the movement’s “best kept secret.” The grassroots adult citizen education program, largely ignored by mainstream media and standard histories which focus on marches, demonstrations, politicians, and famous leaders, transformed legions of men and women across the South from victims to active citizens, agents of change. In turn, they had lasting impact. They made their communities and the nation places of greater freedom and more inclusive justice for all.
September 4th is also the launch of “Shaping Our Future — How Should Higher Education Help Us Create the Society We Want,” dialogues in at least three hundred communities over the coming year about the public purposes of higher education.
Shaping Our Future is organized by the new American Commonwealth Partnership, a coalition with hundreds of colleges, universities and other groups promoting higher education as a public good, and the National Issues Forums, a non-partisan institute promoting public discussions. Martha Kanter, Undersecretary of Education, will participate in the launch, along with Muriel Howard, president of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, Nancy Cantor, Chancellor of Syracuse University, Scott Peters, Co-director of Imagining America, a consortium of schools involving artists and scholars in public life, Kaylesh Ramu, president of the Student Government Association at the University of Maryland Baltimore County, Bernie Ronan, chair of The Democracy Commitment and others.
The launch, held at the National Press Club, will be live-streamed here.
Shaping Our Future dialogues will explore questions such as how higher education can best prepare a highly skilled workforce, provide opportunities for all Americans to attend college, strengthen values such as responsibility, integrity, and respect for others, and develop skills of citizenship in which students and others learn to work across differences to make needed change.
Early experiments show discussions can bring people together across partisan and other differences. “Seeing the different levels of a university present in one group with community members truly provided unique input,” said Laura Lake, a student at Winona State University who moderated an early discussion. “Seeing the differences between the views was extremely interesting. What was more exciting was seeing the areas they agreed upon — that higher education does indeed help us create the society we want.”
A concept in political theory helps to illuminate the dynamic described by Laura.
Hannah Arendt developed the idea of a “table” which acknowledges differences while also offering the possibility of discovering areas of commonality. “Interests constitute something which inter-est, which lies between people and therefore can relate and bind them together,” she argued in her classic work, The Human Condition.
The common table is connected to “world-building,” which allows people to shift focus from feelings about each other to common tasks. As the feminist theorist Linda Zirelli puts it, “Foregrounded in Arendt’s account is something less about the subject than about the world… the human artifact, the fabrication of human hands, as well as affairs which go on among those who inhabit the man-made world together.”
Half a century ago, the civil rights movement served as a common table. It captured the nation’s imagination with images of everyday citizens risking lives and livelihoods to transform the culture of racial bigotry and structures of discrimination. Demonstrations and speeches were visible manifestations, but these channeled vast grassroots energies, cultivated in everyday experiences like the Citizenship Education Program.
The common table focused the attention of millions of Americans on the task of promoting “liberty and justice for all.” The table of change also evolved, taking up other areas of discrimination against women and minorities, in addition to African Americans, like Latinos, Asians, Native Americans, gays and lesbians, and people with disabilities.
It also energized all of American society.
Today, we face new and daunting challenges. Public opinion research by the Kettering Foundation shows that Americans are deeply worried about long term problems which neither government nor markets, by themselves, can solve. The U.S. economy struggles with challenges in a tough global environment. We’ve become an increasingly divided nation, dramatized by this hyperpolarized election. Values like responsibility, integrity, and quality in work seem to be fading. Too many, from Washington to Main Street, are unable to work together to solve problems. The country sees growing economic disparities. Many who work hard and play by the rules are slipping out of the middle class.
These are complex and multifaceted problems. Families, schools, religious groups, non-profits as well as government and business will need to be at “the table of change” if we are to address them. But as shown in the ongoing Huffington Post blog which recounts stories of colleges as agents and architects of change, higher education has far more to contribute to the work of building a more perfect union than is commonly realized.
Shaping Our Future will acquaint large numbers of Americans with stories and methods of colleges and universities that act as agents and architects of change. The discussions will also invite the whole people, not only those in higher education, to be change agents. Strengthening higher education’s contributions to solving problems, building healthy and prosperous communities, and creating a sustainable democracy is important to all of us.
We believe such conversations and the civic work that flows from them can help to create a common table. Though public opinion research shows higher education’s public contributions have slipped from view of most people — who see college only as a ticket for higher paying jobs — Americans overwhelmingly recognize higher education’s importance. Nearly nine out of 10 people say Americans are better off going to college.
One of the objectives, indeed, of the National Issues Forum is to help participants find common ground, a path they can travel together. We need a common table, a way to find common ground, more than ever if we are to recall King’s words in Letter from a Birmingham Jail: “We are tied together in the single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality.”
Harry C. Boyte, 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, worked as a field secretary for SCLC as a college student.
Coalition of Colleges and Nonprofits to Conduct Hundreds of Community Forums During the Next Year
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
A yearlong, nationwide series of deliberative forums dialogues on how higher education could do more, or operate differently, to strengthen America’s economy, culture, and civic participation will be launched by a coalition of nonprofit and educational leaders on September 4 at 9 a.m. at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. The project, Shaping Our Future: How Should Higher Education Help Us Create the Society We Want, is being led by the American Commonwealth Partnership and National Issues Forums Institute, both nonprofit, nonpartisan groups.
While there is heated discussion among education, political, and business leaders about how to address the many challenges facing higher education, this initiative will help students, faculty, and other citizens weigh different approaches to problems and seek common ground for action. The deliberative dialogues—to be held in at least 300 communities—will explore questions such as how higher education can best work to insure a highly skilled workforce to maintain the nation’s economic strength and competitiveness, promote equity by providing opportunities for all Americans, and strengthen values such as responsibility, integrity, and respect for others, as well as develop skills to seek common ground or work through differences in a civil manner.
The September 4 panel launching this initiative will include: Martha Kanter, U.S. Under Secretary of Education; Bill Muse, president of the National Issues Forums Institute; Harry Boyte, national coordinator of the American Commonwealth Partnership; NancyCantor, chancellor of Syracuse University; Muriel Howard, President of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities; Bernie Ronan, chair, The Democracy Commitment; Kaylesh Ramu, president, Student Government Association, University of Maryland Baltimore County; and Scott Peters, co-director, Imagining America.
“Preparing all students for informed, engaged participation in the civic life of our communities is notjust essential, it is entirely consistent with the goals of increasing student achievement, closing achievement gaps and preparing citizens to understand their role and responsibility in our democracy,” Martha Kanter, U.S. Under Secretary of Education, said.
WHAT: Shaping Our Future How Should Higher Education Help Us Create the Society We Want
WHERE:National Press Club, Holeman Lounge, Washington, D.C.
To RSVP, please contact Phil Lurie, at email@example.com or 202-393-4478. For additional information about Shaping Our Future, visit http://www.nifi.org/issue_books/detail.aspx?catID=6&itemID=21640.