Colleges as Agents of Change -- The Public Work Approach

12/15/2014 10:42 am ET Updated Feb 14, 2015

We may be in a "new wave of activism" for social change among young people, as Charles Blow argued in the New York Times. But many see colleges as irrelevant to change, at best. There needs to be much wider knowledge about the "democracy's college" tradition, its public work approach to creating change, and its differences with the politics of protest.

Higher education often communicates a narrow view of its role which contributes to amnesia about this tradition. Colleges market themselves as tickets to individual gain. And as I described in my recent blog, "Democracy and the Rankings," the variables used by US News and World Report disadvantage college engagement with local communities. Rankings also reward exclusivity -- the higher number of students colleges reject, the higher their rankings.

Meanwhile, many social change activists see education and higher education as bulwarks of the status quo. The model used to think about education and social transformation, developed by the late Brazilian educator- activist Paulo Freire, illustrates.

In Pedagogy of the Oppressed, published in 1968, Freire argues that education uses a "banking" approach, assuming students are like empty bank accounts where teachers deposit knowledge. Such education dehumanizes all involved. It also reinforces oppression throughout society. In contrast, he calls for students to be "co-creators" of education, with liberation from oppression the goal. This requires that the oppressed reflect upon their oppression and fight against it."Freedom is acquired by conquest, not by gift (p. 47)," he says.

There are important insights in Freire, such as the idea that students should be active agents of their learning, not passive recipients. And Freire's approach has gained world-wide fame among change activists, including many in the US. A study in 2003 by David Steiner and Susan Rozen, examining curricula at leading schools of education found that Pedagogy of the Oppressed is a major text.

But Freire's popularity also shows weaknesses both in higher education and in conventional theories of change.

In the first instance, Freire's model rests on the assumption that consciousness raising is the wellspring of change. This feeds into faculty research cultures, which have become increasingly detached from public life and the lives of students. In such cultures, critique substitutes for cultivating capacities for action. In both my undergraduate and graduate courses, I have heard students say, again and again, that they hear far more about what's wrong than how to change it.

The stance of critique is reinforced by the dominant theory of power, the idea that power is zero-sum. Some have it and others don't. Change involves "overthrowing the powers," rather than democratizing power systems. In a forthcoming interview on higher education change in the Imagining American journal Public, Erica Kohl-Arenas, a teacher at the New School in New York describes strong anti-institutional attitudes among her students, grounded in skepticism about the possibility of making change. They love the idea of creating countercultural institutions, she says, because existing institutions "feel too big and massive to change."

The democracy college tradition is informed by approaches to popular education, change, and power, what can be called a public work approach, different than protest or the Freirian model. Public work has moments of struggle against clearly oppressive structures. But public work involves sustained work by a mix of people with different interests and views to solve problems, create common resources, and build a way of life together. It requires understanding power as the capacity to act, not simply the ability to impose one's will.

The difference between an oppression model and the public work approach is like the difference between the Exodus narrative and the Wilderness narrative in the Bible, which Marie-Louise Strӧm and I described in an earlier blog on climate change. The Exodus narrative involved a one-dimensional struggle against oppression.

The wilderness narrative is the story of the Jews' effort over 40 years to build a way of life in institutions, governance structures, and culture. It was productive, difficult, and messy. It included accepting the responsibility of one's agency, not looking to others for salvation, a hard task -- the Israelites often wanted to go back into Egypt.

A later biblical story in the same vein is the Nehemiah story of rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem. The people rebuilt themselves as they reconstructed the commonwealth.

There are many tributaries of popular education and change making with a public work character. Jane Addams, founder of the Hull House settlement for new immigrants and a major influence on John Dewey, argued that education needs to "free the powers" in each student, drawing on their cultural backgrounds and lived experiences.

Scandinavian folk school traditions, shaped by the Danish philosopher and theologian N.F.S. Gruntvig, had a similar approach. Folk schools, sometimes taking shape in colleges, were integral to farmer, labor, and free church movements among common people in Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Germany, France, and elsewhere. They contributed immensely to the creation of more democratic societies.

Folk school traditions also inspired popular education in America such as the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee, which played a crucial role in the civil rights movement. Highlander was original home to the citizenship education program of the movement which shaped me as a young man.

Older land grant colleges and historically black colleges and universities drew on folk school and settlement house traditions and had strong public work elements, as Scott Peters and Tim Eatman describe in the forthcoming volume, Democracy's Education: Public Work, Citizenship, and the Future of Colleges and Universities.

So did liberal arts schools such as Augsburg College, our new institutional home, where the Center for Democracy and Citizenship is now part of the Sabo Center for Democracy and Citizenship.

Like land grants, HBCUs, and Highlander, Augsburg had a down-to-earth quality wedding liberal arts education to career training grounded in practical experience. Augsburg grew from the Norwegian Free Church movement, congregations independent of the state committed to autonomy and a concept of vocation contributing social improvement. "Keeping the vision of the democratic college, Georg Sverdrup, Augsburg's second president (1876-1907), required students to get pre-ministerial experience in city congregations," recounts the Augsburg website.

Public work is messy, hard, often slow and painstaking. But if our role in education is not simply to name problems but to help our students address them, it is vital to revive the public work approach, both to meet our challenges and to build a more democratic society.