For Democracy’s Future – College for a Citizen Career

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.