THE BLOG

Bread and Roses Politics: Citizens Take the Lead on Education

09/24/2013 11:08 am ET | Updated Nov 21, 2013

A thin "mass politics" runs through progressive history, reducing interests of the people to a demand for "more." "More" was a favorite term of Samuel Gompers, founder of the American Federation of Labor, which reproduced the logic of consumer society. It defines people by their needs and wants -- neglecting their capacities for public creation.

There is an alternative, what can be called a politics of bread and roses, relevant to education in a time of rapid change.

Mass politics appears in the new proposals from the Obama administration on education. The proposals don't reflect the president's best insights.

In visionary moments, the president voices the heart of the democratic faith, the conviction that our democracy is enlarged by the talents and intelligence of everyday citizens. Reflecting on the limits of community organizing, Obama wrote in 1990 that "Most [community organizers] practice... a 'consumer advocacy' approach, with a focus on wrestling services and resources from the outside powers that be. Few are thinking of harnessing the internal productive capacities... that exist in communities."

In a similar vein, Obama marked the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington by honoring the "ordinary people... the seamstresses, and steelworkers, and students, and teachers, maids and pullman porters" who came by the hundreds of thousands. "Change does not come from Washington but to Washington," he said, "built on our willingness, we, the people, to take on the mantle of citizenship."

Obama's sense of the potential greatness of everyday citizens also animates education at its best. But it is not included in Obama's most recent higher education plan.

The plan is to create a Report Card that rates colleges on measures such as tuition, graduation rates, debt, numbers of lower income students enrolled, and incomes of alumni, tying financial aid to the ratings.

The plan addresses some real issues -- rising costs, graduation rates, access, and debt. But if ever there is a case when "change needs to come to Washington not from Washington," this is it.

The case of the Bush administration's No Child Left Behind" is instructive. It eroded the power of educators and students, parents and communities to make change. Moreover, in the case of Obama's education plan, focusing on the earnings of graduates threatens to further erode the role of education in preparing students for active citizenship -- clashing with the administration's own priorities, announced on January 10, 2012, with a new policy of educating for "college, career, and citizenship."

It is worth remembering two different strands of labor history. Gomper's answer to what labor wants -- "we want more and when it becomes more we shall still want more" -- thinned out the meaning of workers' politics. Gompers reflected the "mass politics" which Obama himself once incisively criticized in pointing out limits of community organizing. Mass politics, as the historian Steven Fraser describes in The Rise and Fall of the New Deal Order, is based on the concept of the "new man... existentially mobile, more oriented to consumption than production, familiar with the impersonal rights and responsibilities of industrial due process."

The president's best instincts, in contrast, embody a larger politics combining material concerns with people's larger interests in a world of beauty and meaning which they help to build. This was the theme of the Lawrence Textile Strike, uniting dozens of immigrant communities in 1912. The strike frontally challenged Gompers' reductionist view of the worker. It was led by women and settled on terms favorable to the workers.

The phrase, from a speech by Rose Schneiderman, "the worker must have bread, but she must have roses too," inspired the poem, "Bread and Roses," by James Oppenheim,

"As we come marching, marching, in the beauty of the day
A million darkened kitchens, a thousand mill lofts gray,
Are touched with all the radiance that a sudden sun discloses,
For the people hear us singing, Bread and roses! Bread and roses!"

Popular mythology holds that striking women carried signs with the slogan. Its practical wisdom --- that everyday citizens are concerned with both immediate needs and larger meanings -- animated the great labor, cooperative, educational, cultural and farmer movements of the New Deal, as well as the civil rights movement which Obama eloquently praised.

Today, "Bread and Roses" wisdom is evident in citizen views about higher education surfacing in Shaping Our Future forums on the purposes of higher education, held across the country over the last year. Shaping Our Future was launched by the American Commonwealth Partnership and the National Issues Forum at the National Press Club September 4th, 2013, with support of the administration. Undersecretary Martha Kanter spoke eloquently about the importance of a rich education that emphasizes broad thinking and skills of citizenship. Since then we convened more than 120 forums across the country bringing together college students, parents, faculty, employers, retirees, policy makers and others to deliberate about higher education's roles.

The forums show a gap between how lay citizens, outside the policy making arena, think about higher education, and the debate among policy makers. "Facing a more competitive international economy and relentlessly rising college costs, leaders say now is the moment for higher education to reinvent itself," writes Jean Johnson in Divided We Fail, a report on the findings. In contrast, while participants were aware of practical problems like rising costs and debt, they also "spoke repeatedly about the benefits of a rich, varied college education...where, in their view, students have time and space to explore new ideas and diverse fields."

In a recent blog in The Huffington Post , Johnson quotes a woman participant: "If you have a higher education background, you've had opportunity to be exposed to different cultures, different lifestyles, different religious, different belief systems, and you have a...heart and a mind that are both opened."

Lay citizens, in short, understand the need for "hearts and minds to be opened" for challenges ahead, and that colleges are crucial to that opening.

Indeed, they may be a sleeping giant, ready to awaken.

Harry Boyte, Director of the Center for Democracy and Citizenship at Augsburg College and a Senior Fellow at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs, coordinated the American Commonwealth Partnership which worked with the White House and Department of Education in 2012 to strengthen the public purposes of higher education.