THE BLOG
11/09/2012 10:00 pm ET Updated Jan 09, 2013

For Democracy's Future -- College for a Citizen Career

In his victory speech, President Obama said, "Tonight you voted for action, not politics as usual." He declared his intention 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 will take all of us.

We need active citizens who learn to work across differences if we are to see much change in the Washington culture or the country. This will mean deepening citizenship to understand it as expressed through work, not simply off-hours activity. To accomplish this will take a movement across 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." Again on November 7, he argued 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."

Last January 10, an event called For Democracy's Future, hosted by the White House Office of Public Engagement, advanced the president's civic vision. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan announced that policy will include preparing young people for "citizenship," as well as "college" and "career." The Department invites discussion about implementing its report, "Advancing Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement."

Adding a C for citizenship to preparation for "college" and "career" has been a long-time 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.

A next step is to integrate the "three C's." Education needs to prepare students through college for citizen careers. This will move citizenship from a poor cousin to the center of the family.

There is growing pressure for higher education to focus on "workforce development." And research 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."

Pioneers in combining academic study with work preparation have shown the power of this approach, especially for low-income and minority young people. They also show its potential to make learning and work both bigger, about communities and the democracy, not simply "jobs."

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 class that focuses on the city's flower garden show, 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." Students also learn "we're all in this together," Shaw says. "What is this going to do to better my life, and help someone else?" With a student body more than 60 percent 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 percent in the Chicago district as a whole.

Such examples confound narrow definitions of intelligence, sharp divisions between kinds of knowledge -- and a narrow focus on "jobs." They respond to young people's desires "to be somebody, to possess agency and competence, to have a grasp on the forces that affect them," as Mike Rose puts it. They revitalize traditions like "civic business owner" and "citizen teacher" recently described.

But today, education that prepares students to think about expressing their citizenship through work is rare.

Land grant colleges, called "democracy's colleges," once had an ethos of civic learning that permeated every kind of work preparation. Their cooperative extension agents undertook public work in communities across the country, aimed at "building rural democracy."

By the 1950s, the tie between citizenship and work had largely disappeared. "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, sciences, and civic learning on the other. The 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 service or voluntary activity.

Yet in a time when "jobs" are widely discussed, work-related ideas like education for "civic agency" and "civic professionalism" begin to appear. David Scobey, dean of the New School of Public Engagement, has recently called for a new emphasis on work and its civic implications 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."

The White House meeting last January also launched the American Commonwealth Partnership, a coalition of educational and civic groups that works with the Department of Education in order to deepen civic mission from "activities" to "identity" of whole institutions. It incubates initiatives like "Citizen Alum" and "Civic Science" advancing a citizen-centered view of democracy.

ACP is a vehicle for answering Scobey's call. We need a new generation of citizen workers in every field.

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.