THE BLOG
02/27/2014 05:47 pm ET Updated Apr 29, 2014

Public Happiness

At first appearance, the recent call by Nicholas Kristof for the nation's "smartest thinkers," now hidden away in the arcane world of academia, to join the "great debates" about the nation's problems ("Professors, We Need You," New York Times , February 15, 2014), would seem to have little in common with Patrick Creadon's latest documentary, If You Build It.

Kristof's call out to academics is addressed to the high end of American meritocracy -- the "best and the brightest," in the old phrase.

The documentary, by way of contrast, tells a real life story of two young self-described design activists, Emily Pilloton and Matthew Miller, who worked with 10 scruffy high school juniors whom many would see as on the losing end of the meritocracy. The teens take time off from shoveling cow dung to participate in a shop class with large ambitions, Studio H. Their final project, creating a local farmers market, aims at revitalizing a destitute rural community.

Their work closes on a note of measured optimism, but it has its ups and downs. The shop class is viewed skeptically by the local school board, which refuses to pay the teachers' salaries. The group also succeeds in building the farmers' market, in the process planting what Pilloton calls "small seeds in our students."

From another angle of vision, both Kristof's call and If You Build It represent a broader ferment. After all, the process of involving leading scholars in public life was well underway before Kristof's column, organized by the Scholars Strategy Network, a creation of Harvard social scientist Theda Skocpol in 2009. SSN now involves 370 academics, based on the premise that "scholars need to be more fully involved in today's great debates."

Meanwhile, signs of a movement to reconnect education with real-world public work are multiplying, as I have described before in stories about highly successful educational initiatives for low income kids. These include Youth Build and the Chicago High School for Agricultural Sciences.

I believe that the impulse toward what our nation's founders understood as public happiness is gaining strength against the grain of today's privatized, consumer versions of "happiness."

John Adams, the nation's second president, leading advocate of independence, chief author of the Massachusetts Constitution of 1779, was an eloquent philosopher of such public happiness. In Section Two of Chapter Six, Adams testified to the virtues of education, which he held essential to "the happiness of a people and the good order and preservation of civil government." The Constitution continues:

Wisdom and knowledge, as well as virtue, diffused generally among the body of the people, being necessary for the preservation of their rights and liberties; and as these depend on spreading the opportunities and advantages of education in the various parts of the country, and among the different orders of the people, it shall be the duty of legislatures and magistrates, in all future periods of this commonwealth, to cherish the interests of literature and the sciences, and all seminaries of them... public schools, and grammar-schools in the towns; to encourage private societies and public institutions, rewards and immunities, for the promotion of agriculture, arts, sciences, commerce, trades, manufactures, and a natural history of the country; to countenance and inculcate the principles of humanity and general benevolence, public and private charity, industry and frugality, honesty and punctuality in their dealings; sincerity, and good humor, and all social affections and generous sentiments, among the people.

Put differently, both the Scholars Strategy Network and Studio H are seedbeds for a renewed understanding that education is a great civic vocation. The goal is not simply private success, but public contribution.

Education, understood in this way, is constitutive of a flourishing democratic society. The understanding has never been more needed.

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Harry Boyte is 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.