02/14/2013 06:43 pm ET Updated Apr 16, 2013

Higher Education and the Movement for Citizen-Centered Democracy


President Obama's State of the Union, on February 12, challenged the country to think big. "As Americans, we all share the same proud title," Obama said. "We are citizens." Higher education can build foundations for the idea -- and the politics -- of citizenship, if we recognize that the fate of our colleges is inextricably tied to our communities and our country. This involves a shift from the moralized and polarizing stance that its key figures often take to a practical politics of problem solving and alliance-building.

A sense of mutual interconnectedness animated Obama's address. "Citizen," in his view, "captures the enduring idea that this country only works when we accept certain obligations to one another and to future generations... it remains the task of us all, as citizens of these United States, to be authors of the next great chapter in our American story."

Obama's view of citizens as the foundational agents of democracy was widespread in the civil rights movement which I participated in a half century ago as a college student. As Septima Clark, an architect of the citizenship schools across the South put it, their purpose was "to broaden the scope of democracy to include everyone and deepen the concept to include every relationship." Citizenship schools not only taught skills but shifted identities from victim to agent of change, described in Dorothy Cotton's book, If Your Back's Not Bent: The Role of the Citizenship Education Program in the Civil Rights Movement. "People who had lived for generations with anger and victimization, now knew in no uncertain terms that if things were going to change, they themselves had to change them." Cotton calls citizenship education "people empowering."

The politics of the movement sought to win over the broad majority for democratic change, far more than the "50% + 1" mindset of most election and issue campaigns today. Thus Thelma Craig, whose organization in Southern Alabama, the Citizens League, elected more black candidates to local office than anywhere else in the South, argued that transforming a racist society requires winning more than 80 percent. "There will be opponents, hold-outs, die-hards. But real change in culture takes place when the overwhelming majority of the population learns to see it as in their own interests."

Obama's vision is similarly broad, challenging the good versus evil, hyper-moralized political scripts which dominate today on both right and left. In contrast, today higher education leaders often contribute to the latter.

For instance, Cornel West, former Harvard and Princeton professor now at Union Theological Seminary, illustrates a moralizing, polarizing approach. He used Martin Luther King's outcries against the Vietnam war, materialism, and racism as the basis for a searing critique of Obama in a New York Times opinion piece, August 25, 2011. He charges that

"The age of Obama has fallen tragically short of fulfilling King's prophetic legacy. Instead of articulating a radical democratic vision and fighting for homeowners, workers and poor people in the form of mortgage relief, jobs and investment in education, infrastructure and housing, the administration gave us bailouts for banks, record profits for Wall Street and giant budget cuts on the backs of the vulnerable."

After the Inauguration, West told C-Span that Obama's use of King's Bible "makes my blood boil... Martin Luther King Jr. [is] a brother of such high decency and dignity that you don't use his prophetic fire as just a moment in presidential pageantry."

But Martin Luther King is best understood as a co-worker with others like Thelma Craig and Septima Clark in building a movement, not as a heroic moral critic. King well understood the importance of strategic alliance, where possible, with the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. Highlighting King as a co-worker does not diminish the force of his or West's trenchant criticisms of America's shortcomings. But it shifts the emphasis to what we have to do together -- as academics and as government. Rather than asking Obama to solve our problems, the president is best seen as a partner.

A majoritarian political perspective, aiming at far more than 50 percent, is urgent for higher education to develop in a time of enormous change and mounting threats. A recent story from Inside Higher Education dramatizes these.

"North Carolina governor joins chorus of Republicans critical of liberal arts," read the headline. The story continued: "Governor McCrory's comments on higher education echo statements made by a number of Republican governors...Those criticisms have started to coalesce into a potential Republican agenda on higher education, emphasizing reduced state funding, low tuition prices, vocational training, performance funding for faculty members, state funding tied to job placement in 'high demand' fields and taking on flagship institutions."

Such developments threaten wholesale re-engineering of higher education from the outside. They also create openings. In a time when "outcome measures" are narrower and narrower, from K-12 schools to HMOs in health, professionals of all kinds find themselves in positions analogous to black and white farmers in the populist movement of the 1890s. They "contested the loss of control over the means of their work and the intellectual and physical products of that work," as the community organizer and public intellectual Gerald Taylor has put it in a recent piece on the parallels.

Faculty and others are faced with the prospect that they will either be the architects of change or it will happen to them. There is urgent need for a democratic, majoritarian politics different than the ideological warfare that often characterizes campus cultures. We need to change the largely moral higher education movement for democratic engagement and civic learning into a cross-partisan political movement based on self-interests and shared interests.

Higher education must get in the game, recognizing that the administration is an ally, if we are to navigate the dramatic changes in our environment. And we need to see ourselves as co-workers in the movement for a citizen-centered democracy.

Harry C. Boyte is Director of the Center for Democracy and Citizenship at Augsburg College and a Senior Fellow at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs. In 2012, he directed the American Commonwealth Partnership of educational groups, a partnership with the White House Office of Public Engagement and the Department of Education to strengthen higher education as a public good.