THE BLOG
07/30/2014 01:55 pm ET | Updated Sep 29, 2014

The Power of Diversity and the Coming Democratic Movement in Higher Education

The forthcoming collection Democracy's Education (Vanderbilt University Press, 2015), described in my recent blog on higher education and rising inequality, makes the case for a democratic narrative of education. Such a narrative is based on "cooperative excellence," the idea that a highly diverse mix of people, interacting in settings of high expectations and public purposes, can achieve far more both in terms of individual educational growth and social benefit than education based on "meritocratic excellence."

University of Michigan professor Scott Page's book, The Difference: How the Power of Diversity Creates Better Groups, Firms, Schools, and Societies (Princeton University Press, 2007), brings together a considerable body of evidence which also helps makes this case. Indeed, Chapter 13 alone includes fifty six notes with more than seventy sources which show the advantages of focusing on generating cooperative, diverse experiences and interactions over focusing on individual genius. As Nobel Prize winning economist Kenneth Arrow summarized in his book endorsement, "Page has brought to our attention a practically important proposition: diversity of viewpoints is of the greatest importance in solving the problems that face us individually and collectively. Diversity among a group of problem solvers is more important than individual excellence."

Today's dominant story of higher education is based on norms of hypercompetitive individual achievement in which admission to Ivy League schools is the ultimate mark of success. The costs to both individuals and society are high. As William Deresiewicz dramatically puts it in his recent New Republic essay, "Don't Send Your Kids to the Ivy League," "Our system of elite education manufactures young people who are smart and talented and driven, yes, but also anxious, timid, and lost, with little intellectual curiosity and a stunted sense of purpose."

But there is evidence that students today, perhaps sensing the alternative narrative of cooperative excellence, are looking for something different than the elite-making system. Their aspirations could fire a movement for democratizing reform.

In my 2004 book, Everyday Politics, I recount New York Times research which led the paper to join with the American Association of State Colleges and Universities (AASCU) in a new initiative called the American Democracy Project, aimed at strengthening the civic and public purposes of higher education. The American Democracy Project includes several hundred AASCU schools, regional colleges and universities called "American Dream" colleges since many of their students are the first in their families to go to college.

The Times' joined with AASCU based on unexpected discoveries about students' interests and aspirations.

The newspaper's trend analysis had shown that American culture is becoming more segmented into insulated subgroups of viewpoint, ideology, and culture. In contrast the Times depends on a readership that welcomes a diversity of viewpoints and vantages. The paper's marketing department found, to their surprise, that students may well be responsive to efforts to make real the "power of diversity."

The Times sponsored a competition among advertising and marketing students to develop a theme to attract more student readers. The majority of submissions focused on a common theme: students want to explore the world outside of their bubble, and they aspire to college experiences which stimulate, challenge, and explose them to different perspectives on the world. The campaign that most clearly captured this concept was developed by students at Indiana University-Bloomington. The team coined the phrase "Understand Why," and positioned the phrase against photographic images from the Times that illustrated compelling and often disturbing issues.

This finding was so much at odds with dominant college admission pitches which stress individual career advancement and competitive success that the paper conducted their own focus groups with students all across the country. Large schools and small, North, South, East, and West, the results were the same: students either failed to respond to or explicitly rejected the idea of "Advance your career! The New York Times helps you achieve professional success." Overwhelmingly they liked the theme, "Understand Why."

The good news was that students saw the Times as a potential resource to help them do this. The ad campaign ran and exceeded expectations in its successful recruitment of new college readers.

The bad news is that most college students do not have many experiences of deep engagement with diverse cultures, ways of thinking, and real world challenges in college education today. The newspaper's other finding was that if students do not escape their "bubbles" in college or shortly afterwards, they are likely to settle into patterns of relatively homogeneous social and friendship circles that will persist through their lifetimes.

Higher education's fledgling engagement movement over the last two decades can be seen as a response to this challenge, an effort to create more diverse, interactive, egalitarian learning cultures, across all institutions. The The Wingspread Declaration in 1999, which Elizabeth Hollander, then president of Campus Compact and I co-authored on behalf of a group of higher education leaders, called for revitalizing the civic mission of the American research university. A Crucible Moment in 2012, coordinated by Caryn McTighe Musil of the Association of American Colleges and Universities, called for extensive focus on civic learning and democratic engagement across every type of college and university.

A Crucible Moment was released at the White House event in 2012, "For Democracy's Future." The White House meeting also launched the American Commonwealth Partnership (ACP), a year-long initiative, invited by Jon Carson, director of the White House Office of Public Engagement, to develop ways to revitalize higher education's democratic narrative. Democracy's Education grows from ACP.

Yet it would be naïve to ignore the ways in which such efforts cut against the grain of the dominant elite, individualist narrative of higher education. John Saltmarsh, director of the New England Resource Center for Higher Education, has argued that we need a new stage of the engagement movement which can effect institution-wide transformation. This new stage is essential if we are to develop a democratic narrative based on cooperative excellence capable of countering the elite educational narrative.

Democracy's Education, now available for preorder from Amazon.com, details many practical examples, some institution-wide in scale, which show that "yes we can," it can be done.

Harry C. Boyte, Director of the Center for Democracy and Citizenship at Augsburg College and a Senior Fellow at the University of Minnesota's Humphrey School of Public Affairs, directed the American Commonwealth Partnership and is editor of Democracy's Education.