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Connect with the people and ideas reshaping higher education, written by Goldie Blumenstyk. Delivered on Wednesdays.

January 13, 2021

From: Goldie Blumenstyk

Subject: The Edge: How Higher Ed Can Help Repair Our Democracy

I’m Goldie Blumenstyk, a senior writer at The Chronicle covering innovation in and around academe. Here’s what I’m thinking about this week.

Higher ed can help repair the fractures in our democracy. Really, it can.

First off, let’s acknowledge the obvious: It’s hard not to feel depressed and scared about the future of American democracy right now.

Nonetheless, I found myself oddly comforted last Friday when I picked up “Our Common Purpose: Reinventing American Democracy for the 21st Century.” Published in June by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, it offers a sober account of the racial, economic, social, and political divisions racking our nation. For me, reading it just 48 hours after the violent siege of the U.S. Capitol (words I can still hardly believe I’m writing), was also a bit of a tonic. That’s because the report proposes dozens of intriguing ideas for bridging those chasms — through social media, journalism, political reform, and civic education — that now seem more urgent than ever. Having tangible prospects in the picture can make a situation feel less hopeless.

One of the biggest takeaways from the report is that it’s too hard today for many people to take part in our democracy in a constructive way. Fixing that problem will be complicated, but one key piece of the solution is helping people build the skills to participate. “That,” says Danielle Allen, a professor of government at Harvard University, “actually is a job for higher education.”

Allen is one of three co-chairs of a 35-member commission of scholars and civic and business leaders that devoted two years to the report, meeting with hundreds of Americans around the country. (She also recently announced that she’s exploring a gubernatorial run in Massachusetts.) Earlier this month, I planned to talk with Allen and then write about the report for the issue of this newsletter scheduled for Inauguration Day: You know, a nice, civic-minded theme to go with a new political era. But between the time we set up the interview and when we actually spoke, the backdrop shifted convulsively.

Yet as Allen herself noted, long before the siege (and the pandemic), the report was premised on the understanding that the country was threatened by deep divisions over our political institutions and a siloed information environment that makes it hard to develop a shared national purpose, much less a shared sense of the truth.

“Now,” she said, “we can all see this as starkly and plainly as can be.” The images of the Capitol siege that flooded America’s screens could actually lend momentum to some of the report’s ideas. For change to take place, Allen said, “recognition” must come first.

A new civics curriculum, service learning, and different kinds of community outreach.

One thing I appreciated most about “Our Common Purpose” is how it naturally connects the future of democracy to politics, media, civics, and of course education (I geeked out on recommendations like 18-year terms for Supreme Court justices and public-purpose social-media platforms).

I’m not quite clear on what it would mean to use philanthropic and even federal dollars for a “National Trust for Civic Infrastructure” to fund small-d democratic efforts around the country. But especially after last week, there’s an appeal to that notion. As the report notes, the United States supports democracy overseas. So “why not fund democracy at home?”

Two of the 31 recommendations deal directly with education. One explicitly calls for investments in civic educators and civic education for children and adults:

“Civic education must do more than teach names and dates, or even impart hands-on experience. The American citizen today must be prepared to acknowledge our nation’s mistakes, to recognize that we have grappled over time to improve our imperfect union, to find pride in those struggles, and to recognize that, at our best, everyone is included. We suggest that citizens today must be able to deal with ongoing debate and argument, be able to engage in that debate, find compromise, and from it all find their own love of country.”

There’s plenty to unpack in those few sentences. For one, they seek to bridge the two camps in the field of civic education: those who argue for teaching “civic knowledge” and those who prefer to encourage “civic action.” The lines also reflect the kind of nuance missing from more-traditionalist demands for teaching American history. The goal, Allen said, isn’t to build courses “the way they existed 70 years ago,” but rather to tell the story of American history by integrating a wider set of perspectives. The canon has become broader, she said, and curricula should reflect that. We wouldn’t want high-school biology courses today to skip genomics, she said. “Yet that is what we’ve let happen in the case of civic learning.” (Check out another effort involving Allen, the Educating for American Democracy project, with recommendations coming soon.)

It hardly helps, Allen added, that the United States spends about $50 in federal funds per pupil teaching STEM subjects in elementary and secondary schools, but just five cents on civics. In that field, she said, “we don’t have a well-built-out educator corps.”

Beyond teacher training, I wondered where Allen saw a broader role for colleges, especially since many are already — increasingly — promoting service learning and other forms of civic engagement. She pointed to Lehigh University’s Southside Initiative, which connects students and professors with community members through courses, service, and research focused on local health and environmental issues.

Away from campuses, she also highlighted GenUnity, a nonprofit in Massachusetts that offers a four-month leadership program for adults built around hands-on community projects, with scholarships to ensure broad participation. Come March, Allen plans to teach her own course on the subject, a 12-hour MOOC to be called “Civic Engagement in Our Constitutional Democracy.” It’s designed to help people craft their own civic identity, she said.

Time to act ‘from root to branch.’

The report’s other big education-focused recommendation recognizes the disdain for government institutions and leaders that had been brewing even before the brutal Capitol attack. It calls for developing a common narrative on American history that can “do justice both to core democratic values and to our often egregious failures to live up to them.”

That’s basically “truth and reconciliation,” Allen said, a process of holding people accountable for crimes while figuring out how their views diverged and how to “get them back into a meaningful shared space.”

Political violence occurs, she said, “when groups of people have very separate worldviews.” Some members of last week’s mob, and those who back them, “really believed they were carrying out a legitimate act of revolution,” she said.

Faced with that, a “narrative” doesn’t seem like enough right now. But I remember all the hoopla around the United States Bicentennial, so I’m kind of cheered by the report’s idea that the country could come together to develop a new national consensus about our history in time for our 250th anniversary, in 2026. If nothing else, it’s one way to try to counter the despair I feel right now, as I watch my local D.C. government discussing with federal authorities how to protect our nation’s capital from more mob violence at next week’s inauguration.

As the report suggests, a new narrative could become a fundamental piece of what historians might call a “fourth founding” of the nation, a renewal that would mark a new era, like the periods after independence, the Civil War, and the civil-rights movement. To pursue a founding, “you have to think from root to branch,” Allen said. “That’s exactly what we need now.” To accomplish that, higher ed clearly has valuable expertise to contribute.

As reports go, “Our Common Purpose” has been a hit — viewed almost 125,000 times online, with more than 30,000 free copies downloaded or mailed, including to book clubs, community groups, and, according to a spokeswoman, “even a few Thanksgivings.”

If you read it — and I hope you do — I expect many of you will take away different lessons for higher ed than I did. I’d love to know what those are. Please email me at the address below, and I’ll aim to share some responses in a future newsletter.

Got a tip you’d like to share or a question you’d like me to answer? Let me know, at goldie@chronicle.com. If you have been forwarded this newsletter and would like to see past issues, find them here. To receive your own copy, free, register here. If you want to follow me on Twitter, @GoldieStandard is my handle.

Goldie’s Weekly Picks
The veteran reporter Goldie Blumenstyk writes a weekly newsletter, The Edge, about the people, ideas, and trends changing higher education. Find her on Twitter @GoldieStandard. She is also the author of the bestselling book American Higher Education in Crisis? What Everyone Needs to Know.