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Democracy's Education: Stirrings of Change

02/02/2015 05:32 pm ET | Updated Apr 04, 2015

It seems fitting that yesterday was the 113th birthday of the poet Langston Hughes and also the publication date for the collection which I have edited, Democracy's Education: Citizenship, Public Work, and the Future of Colleges and Universities (Vanderbilt University Press). Both Hughes and the contributions to the book collection by a world-class group of policy-makers, presidents, tenured and adjunct faculty, staff, students, community and labor organizers, and public intellectuals hold in tension the challenges of the world as it is and the possibilities of the world as it should be.

Hughes regularly brought together seeming opposites in ways that simultaneously asserted their connection and transgressed conventional relations of power. In 1924 at the age of 22, as a transplanted North Carolinian freshman at Columbia, he penned "Theme for English B" in response to his teacher's assignment to write "a page tonight... out of you... it will be true."

"I wonder if it's that simple?" Hughes muses. Then he speaks a youthful truth to power:

"So will my page be colored while I write?
Being me, it will not be white.
As I learn from you,
I guess you learn from me --
although you are older -- and white --
and somewhat more free.
This is my page for English B."

No contradiction was more vivid in Hughes' poetry than that between the reality of America, the "world as it is" from the vantage of the black experience, and "the world as it should be," ideals of freedom, equality, and democracy. In "Let America Be America Again," Hughes conveys the irony by juxtaposing the creed and the reality: "Equality is in the air we breathe. (There's never been equality for me, Nor freedom in this 'homeland of the free.')" Hughes also defines the essence of the country as the struggle for democratic ideals. In "Freedom's Plow," expressing themes from the Harlem Renaissance and the popular movements of the Great Depression, he gives ownership to all who "made America":

"The plan and the pattern is here,
Woven from the beginning/
Into the warp and woof of America:
ALL MEN ARE CREATED EQUAL.
NO MAN IS GOOD ENOUGH
TO GOVERN ANOTHER MAN
WITHOUT HIS CONSENT...
Who said those things? Americans!
Who owns those words? America!
Who is America? You, me!
We are America!"

In today's dominant intellectual fashion, conjoining "democracy" and "higher education" seems both uninteresting and far-fetched. Mark Lilla, writing in The New Republic last summer on "why the dogma of democracy doesn't always make the world better," sees "democracy" as simply a set of aphorisms about elections, rights, and free markets, part of a wider intellectual exhaustion. "Never since the end of World War II, and perhaps since the Russian Revolution, has political thinking in the West been so shallow and clueless," Lilla argues. "We all sense that ominous changes are taking place in our societies, and in other societies whose destinies will very much shape our own. Yet we lack adequate concepts or even a vocabulary for describing the world we find ourselves in."

Meanwhile, alarm about higher education appears across the political spectrum, from Republicans like Wisconsin governor Scott Walker, who may well use his lack of a college degree as a credential in his presidential bid, to liberals like William Deresiewicz, whose New Republic essay, "The Nation's Top Colleges Are Turning Our Kids into Zombies," was the most widely read article in the magazine's history.

For many, science itself is at least partly to blame for higher education's travails, to the extent that it has become higher education's leading edge. As the historian Andrew Jewett details in a brilliant recasting of the political and cultural history of science, Science, Democracy, and the American University, since the 1960s the main trends in humanities and humanistic social sciences have come to "validate the narrow, value-neutral conception of science" crafted by positivists. "In part because of that interpretive shift, science and democracy came to seem opposed, rather than mutually reinforcing (p. 367)."

Yet Jewett's book itself (Cambridge University Press, 2012) shows that times are a-changing, to recall Bob Dylan. John Dewey, the pragmatic philosopher who tirelessly promoted the linkage between democracy and education, graces the book's cover. In great detail, Jewett shows that Dewey was not an anomalous figure but part of a vast and diverse movement of "scientific democrats" beginning after the Civil War, becoming the dominant force among scientists until World War II. Scientific democrats drew on many traditions, from American pragmatism and Jane Addams' Hull House settlement in Chicago, to the movement of adult education, whose leader, Edward Lineman, was inspired by Danish folk schools which sought to make education "student-centered," beginning with their unique lives and experiences.

For the movement of scientific democrats, science was anything but "value-free" and politically detached. Scientists were citizens, promoters of practices and values which they saw as constitutive of democratic society such as cooperation, free inquiry, the experimental spirit, and insistence that any proposition meet rigorous tests of real world practice. For all their differences, they shared a populist faith in public deliberation by everyday citizens. This animated the Federation of American Scientists, formed just after World War II to educate and involve the people in the issues raised by the atom bomb. Albert Einstein argued that the fate of the world rested on "decisions made in the village square (p. 309)."

Democracy's Education shares with Science, Democracy and the American University the aim of countering dangerous anti-democratic tendencies by recalling a democratic narrative of higher education vastly different than Ivory Tower detachment and individualist meritocracy. Equally important, it is rich with case studies and concepts - curricular and co-curricular reforms which revitalize an educational model akin to the folk schools, beginning with the lives and interests of students, engaged scholarship, "anchor institution" collaborations with communities, institutional democratization.

In sum, they show that a narrative of democracy is again stirring in and around our colleges and universities.