Regrowing Democracy -- The Role of Higher Education

06/15/2015 12:48 pm ET | Updated Jun 15, 2016

If, as William Hastie, the first black federal judge, put it, "democracy is a journey not a destination," we've gotten off track.

Democracy today is narrowed to elections. Government-centered definitions eviscerate the "great word whose history remains unwritten," as the poet Walt Whitman put it. Shrinking democracy collapses education's purpose to a ticket for individual success. Work comes to mean jobs with value measured by profit margins, a definition which threatens massive unemployment in the age of the smart machines described in Nicholas Carr's The Glass Cage and Martin Ford's Rise of the Robots.

If asked seriously, very few Americans really believe that politicians are going to fix our problems for us. But what to do? We need a "we the people democracy" once again and the education and work that can make it come back alive if we are to rebuild our confidence and renew our hope.

Vibrant democracy in American history wove elections into a much bigger way of life. From the Greek demos, people, and kratia, power, democracy meant the "powers of the society," whose "only safe depository," Thomas Jefferson argued, was the people. This came to life in the "portable democracy" described by historian Robert Wiebe in Self-Rule - A Cultural History of Democracy. As settlers built democracy through clearing lands, building towns, and working together on problems, democracy became their creation. The self-organizing spirit animated democratizing movements to "build a more perfect union," from unions and abolition, to women's movements, farmers movements, and the modern civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s.

Skills of a democratic way of life developed through education and work with civic meanings. Thus the Leather Apron Club, founded by Benjamin Franklin in Philadelphia, included tradesmen, artisans, and shopkeepers. The club, with lively discussions about public affairs, was a civic network for "doing well by doing good." Members organized a street-sweeping corps, volunteer firefighters, tax-supported neighborhood constables, health and life insurance groups, a library, a hospital, a school for young people, a society for spreading scientific discoveries, and a postal system.

Education tied to work with public purposes animated movements like the Grange, settlements, and workmen's circles.

The New Deal drew on this history. When Franklin Roosevelt proposed the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), employing three million young men between 1933 and 1942, he argued that "more important than the material gains will be the moral and spiritual value of the work." The CCC made immense contributions to conservation. It also helped school "the greatest generation." In 1947, President Truman's Commission on Higher Education said "the first and most essential charge upon higher education is that... it shall be the carrier of democratic values, ideals and processes."

Our Center for Democracy and Citizenship's study of what makes Minnesota the most civically engaged state, including the highest voting levels, conducted with the National Conference of Citizenship, concluded that a rich history of citizen-organized education with strong connections to the life of communities and work with public meanings was key.

Higher education has mushroomed. In 2011, 21 million students were enrolled part or full time. Economic activity of colleges and universities is more than a trillion dollars yearly. But the democracy mission has eroded as an "Ivory Tower" culture has taken hold, described in the recent documentary by that name. As a result, politicians like Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and Doug Ducey of Arizona make hay by depicting colleges as out of touch.

Yet stirrings of a movement to renew higher education's democracy purpose are appearing, tied to educating for work for the common good, colleges that are part of the life of communities, and a revitalized vision of democracy as a way of life.

At Augsburg College in Minneapolis, nursing and teaching programs aim to prepare "citizen professionals" as change agents. The special education program sends student-teachers to schools to work with special needs kids on public issues they care about like bullying, obesity, and animal cruelty. It creates empowering environments for those with disabilities while equipping future teachers with civic skills. "When I heard words like power, change, and public life, I realized this is was what was craving without naming it," says Nora Ulseth, an Augsburg student. "College is where we train teachers. Unless we teach how to be change agents nothing will change."

Leaders like Nancy Cantor, Chancellor of the Rutgers University-Newark, call for universities to be citizens of a place, not on the side lines studying it. The university's Express Newark center conveys the culture of the city, locating faculty as citizens who contribute to the community, not a breed apart.

Higher education is the upstream school of leadership in our knowledge society. If its democracy movement spreads it will generate help to revive America's democratic soul.

Harry C. Boyte edits Democracy's Education: Public Work, Citizenship, and the Future of Colleges and Universities (Vanderbilt University Press 2015)