The Theft of Democracy's Memory

06/10/2015 04:34 pm ET | Updated Jun 09, 2016

In his book, Knowledge in the Blood, Jonathan Jansen, the first black president of the University of the Free State in South Africa, explores how young Afrikaners can "hold firm views about a past they never lived." He proposes the idea of tacit memory, "knowledge in the blood," ways of thinking and acting that are handed down but usually unspoken. I would say memories can be negative or they can be positive.

I thought of both last week at the conference of the American Democracy Project and The Democracy Commitment. There is the legacy of prejudice just below the surface of rhetoric about America as a "post-racial society." And there is the view of democracy as a way of life with cultural, social, and economic dimensions. This view of democracy has been stolen. We all have played a role.

In New Orleans, the conference of state colleges and universities and community college, bringing together over 600 people, began with a brilliant speech by Nancy Cantor, chancellor of Rutgers University - Newark. Cantor conjured up what she called the "ghosts" of hibernating bigotry, drawing on a concept of Rupert Nacoste in his recent book Taking on Diversity. Nacoste wrote,

"We stay away from the interpersonal level where bigotry implicates us all. We leave it to our children to carry our baggage on their backs. Baggage they cannot see, but heavy baggage they can feel... Although it is we who have kept it safe and cool..., we are stunned when something happens to awaken that resting, hibernating bigotry."

Cantor described ghosts in the US and around the world, from racist chants in Oklahoma and the noose hanging from a tree at Duke University to xenophobic violence in South Africa and the wall emblazoned with violent images separating Protestant and Catholic neighborhoods in Belfast.

"We only need to look at images of Belfast, the U.S. border, Selma and Ferguson, and Johannesburg, South Africa, to know that we are not done with the ghosts that haunt our social and political landscapes," she said. Cantor detailed grim statistics of rising inequality and racial as well as economic and educational segregation.

Many scholars describe such challenges. For instance, Robert Putnam in his recent book, Our Kids, did an outstanding job of describing growing inequality. But few critics have many useful suggestions. Putnam simply proposes writing elected officials.

In contrast, Nancy Cantor combined an unflinching look at our troubles with the invocation of the vibrant tradition of democratic education and education for democracy as a resource for action. She recalled the view expressed by the philosopher John Dewey.

"We have taken democracy for granted," wrote Dewey in his 1937 essay, "Democracy in the Schools." Democracy, he argued, "has to be enacted anew in every generation, in every day and year, in the living relations of person to person in all social forms and institutions."

For Dewey education was at the heart of a democratic society, while democracy was the animating spirit of true education. "It is the main business of the family and the school to influence directly the formation and growth of attitudes and dispositions, emotional, intellectual and moral," he wrote. "Whether this educative process is carried on in a predominantly democratic or non-democratic way becomes...a question of transcendent importance not only for education itself but for...the democratic way of life."

Cantor located what they are doing at Rutgers University in Newark directly in this tradition. "The very same map of inequality that haunts us can just as well become a map of opportunity - in the context of the power and prevalence of education and innovation in a knowledge economy," she argued. "This is the time for higher education - across both public and private institutions -- to fully embrace its role in effecting that change - its public mission, its public promise." She gave many examples of what she calls "barn-raising public work," collaborations that bring together diverse publics on public challenges. These show what is possible when the older vision of democracy as the work of the people is revitalized.

She quoted the intellectual historian Scott Peters who wrote in his essay in the collection, Democracy's Education: Citizenship, Public Work and the Future of Colleges and Universities, "though it's not widely known or appreciated, engagement in public work is the very heart and soul of the 'democracy's college' tradition."

It is useful to recall that 20 years ago, in his 1995 State of the Union address, President Clinton spoke in a similar vein. He called Americans to a New Covenant around "the work of citizenship":

"If you go back to the beginning of this country, the great strength of America, as de Tocqueville pointed out when he came here a long time ago, has always been our ability to associate with people who were different from ourselves and to work together to find common ground. And in this day, everybody has a responsibility to do more of that. We simply cannot want for a tornado, a fire, or a flood to behave like Americans ought to behave in dealing with one another."

Clinton added that politicians were partly responsible for eroding the work of citizenship. "Most of us in politics haven't helped very much. For years, we've mostly treated citizens like they were consumers or spectators, sort of political couch potatoes who were supposed to watch the TV ads either promise them something for nothing or play on their fears and frustrations." Clearly lay citizens have also forgotten.

In this coming election season we need to challenge ourselves and candidates of whatever party and at whatever level to recall the work of citizenship. And we need to ask candidates to stop pretending they will fix our problems by themselves. These are the questions to pose:

What are your plans to revitalize democracy as a way of life?

And how would you involve the people?"

Harry Boyte is editor of Democracy's Education.