Educating For Democracy

by Scott London

Does it make sense for higher education to be talking about questions of citizenship and democracy at a time when many colleges and universities are grappling with more pressing issues, such as soaring tuition rates, underpaid faculty, and steep budget cuts?

Some months ago, I put this question to a handful of academic leaders. In light of all the talk about community outreach, service learning, and civic engagement on our campuses, it seemed to me like a worthwhile line of inquiry.

I spoke with Thomas Ehrlich (a senior scholar the the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching at Stanford University), George Mehaffy (vice president at the American Association of State Colleges and Universities and director of their American Democracy Project), Beverly Hogan (president of Tougaloo College), Martín Carcasson (professor of communications and director of the Colorado State University Center for Public Deliberation), and David Mathews (president of the Kettering Foundation, as well as former president of the University of Alabama).

What I learned surprised me. At a time when many colleges and universities are cutting back and shifting their priorities to presumably more pressing demands, a growing number of institutions are working to build and strengthen democracy from the ground up. As they explained to me, these schools are going beyond conventional definitions of civic engagement — civics courses, leadership development, service-learning programs, community-based research, etc. — by actually working directly with communities on hands-on, collaborative problem-solving. Students themselves are usually a key part of the equation.

As part of my research for a study on innovative academic centers, I also interviewed several educators who are doing this kind of community-building work, including Alberto Olivas (director of the Center for Civic Participation at Maricopa Community Colleges in Phoenix, Arizona), Larkin Dudley (assistant professor at Virginia Tech and director of its Center for Public Administration and Policy), and Joni Doherty (director of the New England Center for Civic Life at Franklin Pierce University).

With production help from Amy Lee, Derek Barker and others at the Kettering Foundation, my roundtable discussion and excerpts from the interviews have now been edited into a 30-minute program. You can listen to it here (link below). The show will be made available to public radio stations around the country in coming weeks. I’d love to hear your thoughts on it.

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