01/15/2015 09:11 am ET Updated Mar 16, 2015

Populism and Higher Education for the Age of the Smart Machine

What kind of populist politics do we need in 2015 and beyond?

Real populism does not mean simply railing against banks, as liberals pining for an Elizabeth Warren presidential bid assume. Genuine populism is a vision of democratic renaissance based on cross-partisan civic empowerment. It addresses the challenges of concentrated power specific to each age.

We need populism for the age of the smart machine. People's capacities for self-directed effort are eroded not only by concentrated economic power and economic inequality but also by what the South African intellectual Xolela Mangcu calls "technocratic creep." Technocratic creep erodes both individual agency and also the independent centers of popular power, self-organization, and civic learning which are the foundation for broad, democratizing movements.

For such populism, higher education is a crucial site for making change.

In periods of populist upsurge, people empower themselves -- they are not empowered by politicians or government. But political leaders and government policies play crucial partnering and context-setting roles.

There is a rich tradition in this vein, as diverse as the 1862 legislation which established land grant colleges, "people's colleges" and "democracy colleges," Franklin Roosevelt's Wagner Act which sped the growth of unions in the 1930s, "maximum feasible participation" provisions of Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty and the Home Mortgage Disclosure Act which facilitated community organizations, and civic environmental initiatives of the Clinton years. Civic environmentalism shifts from top-down regulation to the setting of broad goals on air quality and other measures and providing resources for communities to work out strategies themselves.

Revival of such democratizing politics is now visible in cities. As Harold Myerson described in "Revolt of the Cities," a new group of progressive populist mayors in New York, Pittsburg, Boston, Minneapolis, Santa Fe and elsewhere are addressing problems of growing inequality while championing measures which facilitate worker and community self-organization. Benjamin Barber, in his recent book, If Mayors Ruled the World, shows that the movement of cities as "laboratories for democracy" is global. Such examples of government as empowering partner are important to build on.

We also need populist politics that reverses technocratic creep.

In the United States, a civic infrastructure of mediating institutions of many kinds -- parties, unions, locally rooted businesses, schools, congregations, colleges, ethnic groups, libraries, settlements, county extension offices, and others -- once connected people's lives with the larger world. Despite prejudices and parochialism, they also often had public qualities which created what Sara Evans and I have called free spaces, spaces for self-organizing, democratic intellectual life, and development of political capacities for work across partisan and other differences, to address problems and negotiate a common way of life. These were the foundations for movements such as civil rights, the women's movement, labor organizing, and farmers cooperatives, changing the whole society in periods like the New Deal and the 1960s.

Free spaces and mediating institutions were also under threat. As early as 1902 the visionary settlement house leader in Chicago, Jane Addams issued a prophetic warning. In Democracy and Social Ethics, she contrasted the corrupt ward bosses in the Chicago political machine whom she long battled with "the reformer who believes that the people must be made over by 'good citizens' and governed by 'experts'?" Because they were involved in the life of the people, ward bosses, "at least are engaged in that great moral effort of getting the mass to express itself, and of adding this energy and wisdom to the community as a whole."

Over the 20th century, higher education fed the growth of expert power and eroding popular power through the spread of a theory of knowledge, positivism, which holds that outside, "objective" experts are the only source of sound knowledge. Faculty research cultures became increasingly detached from interaction with problems of communities and democracy, as shown in American Academic Cultures in Transformation, edited by Thomas Bender and Carl Schorske. Professionals were socialized as "disciplinary" experts, in the phrase of Bender, losing the "civic professional" identities which had rooted their work in local civic life.

Such developments in higher education contributed to transformation of mediating institutions into service operations where lay citizens are redefined as needy clients and customers.

This dynamic threatens to intensify in the age of the smart machine, as conservative New York Times columnist David Brooks describes ("Our Machine Masters," October 30, 2014). Artificial intelligence means that "Engineers at a few gigantic companies will have vast-though-hidden power to shape how data are collected and framed, to harvest huge amounts of information, to build the frameworks through which the rest of us make decisions and to steer our choices."

Progressives need to take learn from these insights and deepen their democratic strategies.

Higher education, contributing to technocratic creep, will be central to democratic change. Colleges and universities are upstream settings which shape the identities, practices, and frameworks of leaders across the whole of contemporary societies. They sustain values and practices such as independent inquiry, free exchange of ideas, the importance of evidence, and the commonwealth of knowledge which are indispensable counterweights to domination by outside experts. And they have a rich narrative of "democracy's education" which shows signs of revival.

This democracy story is evident in the forthcoming collection, Democracy's Education. In the book, Martha Kanter, undersecretary of education for higher education in the first years of the Obama administration, outlines government policies which she helped to create in the tradition of government as empowering partner, facilitating revitalization of civic learning and democratic engagement in higher education.

The democratic narrative is visible in a new national conversation called "The Changing World of Work -- What Should We Ask of Higher Education?" aimed at bringing the larger citizenry into decisions about the economy and work we need, to be launched at the National Press Club, January 21, sponsored by the Kettering Foundation, the National Issues Forums, Augsburg College, Campus Compact, American Democracy Project, Imagining America,-the-American-Library-Association's-Center-for-Civic-Life and others.

Finally, the democracy story of higher education is evident in civic science, a framework for understanding science in society which emphasizes science as a set of democratic practices contributing to human empowerment and scientists as citizens who develop the political skills of work with their fellow citizens to negotiate a shared way of life.

All are resources for democratizing politics in the age of the smart machine.

Harry Boyte edits Democracy's Education, forthcoming from Vanderbilt University Press February 1st.