THE BLOG

Universities, Public Spaces and the Democratic Way of Life

03/30/2015 11:10 am ET | Updated May 30, 2015

Recently, Thomas Ehrlich, former president of Indiana University, co-founder of Campus Compact and a key figure in the higher education engagement movement, with his young colleague, Ernestine Fu, wrote in Forbes magazine about recent attacks in Arizona, Wisconsin and North Carolina on higher education.

In all three cases, those slashing funding for public higher education and the firing of a public university president of a different political party claimed that politics has nothing to do with their decisions. But this is hard to swallow. Rather, it appears that proponents of these actions are part of a growing band of politicians who want partisan politics to shape public higher education. In doing so, they refuse to acknowledge that nonpartisan preparation for democracy is an essential task of colleges and universities.

A recent trip to the University of North Carolina-Greensboro and Campus Compact at Elon brought home to me the potential for higher education to respond to these attacks in constructive ways, moving from the defense to a public mission which can engage the broad majority of Americans. North Carolina is at the center of current controversies. Tom Ross, the president of the University of North Carolina, was recently fired by the system's board, reportedly for political reasons.

To respond effectively requires moving beyond partisan politics to reinvigorate aims far larger than education as simply a path for individual success. It also means a much bigger view of democracy, now usually seen as elections. And, finally, it points to a crucial strategy: A movement to strengthen higher education's capacity to create and catalyze public spaces in classrooms, on campuses and beyond them, which connects disconnected worlds of private life and public life, where people of different partisan views, interests and backgrounds can find common ground.

Here, it is worth recalling that public universities, as they adapted to the modern world, had much this mission. James Angell, president of the University of Michigan at the turn of the last century, believed that UM needed to embody and help shape the dynamics of the changing democracy with a "democratic atmosphere" full of debate, discussion, experimentalism, the play of different views and wide engagement with the society. William James (Harvard), founder of experimental psychology, urged scientific approaches to understanding human behavior based on science as democratic practices -- cooperative, open inquiry, free exchange of ideas and testing of ideas in practice, not "value-free" methods. A democratic view of higher education's purpose was central to President Truman's Commission on Higher Education in 1947.

Meanwhile, it is also important to remember that a view of education's purpose as cultivating the capacities to work across differences means democracy as a way of life, not simply elections. The view once voiced by Jane Addams that education should "free the powers" of each person and connect them to the larger democracy was widely shared. In the 1960s, Martin Luther King described the Civil Rights Movement as bringing the country "back to the great wells of democracy." Students called for "participatory democracy" everywhere, including schools and colleges.

We need many stories in this vein, especially stories led by students, about the work of actually building and sustaining public spaces. These stories are present, but they are now overshadowed by news about students' negative behavior, from racism to sexual violence.

Public spaces allow for expressions of higher education's best democratic values -- free exchange of ideas, thoughtful discussion, appeal to evidence and respect for different perspectives. Such spaces can engage people's private interests and identities -- "private worlds" of personal stories, subjective experiences, identity politics and the like -- and bring them into a larger public context. They also can engage the public world of "Big Data" and "evidence-based solutions" in ways that ground such knowledge production in relational public cultures, transforming the detached informational cultures based on abstraction about human beings which have come to dominate in expert systems.

In North Carolina at UNCG and Campus Compact, I was struck by the strong and positive faculty responses to concepts of deliberative practices around issues like "the changing world of work." There was much interest in new developments in complexity science such as infant development science and Executive Function, which emphasize the central importance of human agency to children's flourishing. Faculty, students, staff and community members expressed enthusiasm for the concept of public spaces which help to build civic agency, people's capacities to work across differences on common challenges.

Such spaces are not about harmony. They are full of tensions, negotiated truths and different kinds of evidence. They require "lowering the temperature" of public discussion, and developing skills of listening and working together. They also help people break out of their bubbles.

I came away convinced that a movement for public spaces is possible and that higher education is central to its development. Such a movement can revive the "democratic atmosphere" at the center of a democratic way of life. Remembering this idea of democracy and revitalizing its atmosphere have never been more important.

Harry Boyte is editor of Democracy's Education: Public Work, Citizenship, and the Future of Colleges and Universities, recently published by Vanderbilt University Press.