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Democracy's Education: Public Work, Citizenship, and the Future of Colleges and Universities

reviewed by Philip Lee - September 26, 2015

coverTitle: Democracy's Education: Public Work, Citizenship, and the Future of Colleges and Universities
Author(s): Harry C. Boyte
Publisher: Vanderbilt University Press, Nashville
ISBN: 0826520367, Pages: 300, Year: 2015
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Boyte is the editor of this book as well as a contributing author. He is a Senior Scholar in Public Work Philosophy at the Sabo Center for Democracy and Citizenship at Augsburg College, a Senior Fellow at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs, and Visiting Professor at Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University in South Africa. This book arises out of the American Commonwealth Partnership, a year-long project that began in 2012 when the White House invited Boyte to create a coalition aimed at strengthening higher education as a public good.

This book begins with Boyte’s incisive organizing essay in which he links the concepts of citizenship, democracy, and education. He argues for a broadened concept of citizenship that goes beyond economic productivity, voting, and voluntarism, embracing citizenship as democratic engagement in our communities that constitutes a form of public work. More specifically, Boyte argues that higher education needs to instruct in a way that its students become “builders of democracy, not simply helpers, voters, analysts, informers, or critics of democracy” (2015, p. 1). For Boyte, this means that higher education, at its best, should be an enabler of this type of work. Democracy’s Education explores different aspects of this idea in twenty-seven subsequent essays by its numerous contributing authors.

To make sense of these myriad voices, this book is divided thematically into seven parts. The first part analyzes the concept of democratic narratives. The authors in this section emphasize the historical role of academia in protecting American democracy. For example, Scott J. Peters focuses on the Morrill Acts of 1862 and 1890. These two Federal laws established land-grant colleges that were once viewed as democracy’s colleges in order to provide context for what higher education has meant for society (p. 44). David Mathews worries that this democratic legacy is being superseded by concerns regarding increased costs to attend colleges and decreased economic returns on students’ expenditures. Mathews focuses on the tension between the goal of higher education as an enabler of American democracy and the desire to make colleges “more productive and efficient in order to stem the growing cost of a college education” (p. 37). The contributors to this part all warn that we must not lose sight of where we have come from as we proceed into the future.

Parts Two through Five explore the role of a multitude of change agents in higher education including college presidents, faculty members, students, alumni, and community organizers. The authors argue that each of these change agents can have important roles in ensuring that the democratic narrative of higher education is not lost. For example, Nancy Cantor and Peter Englot contend that college leaders should reinvent professors as citizens who engage in public work and are part of a broad ecosystem that includes many constituent communities (p. 76). Similarly, KerryAnn O’Meara argues that the decision to pursue scholarship aimed at addressing contemporary public problems should be protected as a part of a professor’s academic freedom.

Judith A. Ramaley and Adam Weinberg focus on the meaning of liberal education at American colleges as it can be applied to facilitating public work. Julie Ellison explores the ways alumni can engage in civic creativity as they continue to support the missions of their respective alma maters. In addressing community organizers, Jenny L. Whitcher illustrates the ways recent graduates searching for meaningful civic work can be mistreated and devalued by the non-profit work often conducted by community organizers, which she refers to as “the mobilizing non-profit complex” (p. 175). Whitcher calls for higher education institutions to protect their students and improve public work by actively engaging this issue. The common thread among authors is that they conceptualize higher educational actors as active participants—that is, good democratic citizens—in constructing their educational systems and the other communities they inhabit.

Part Six focuses on the possible futures of higher education. For example, in the opening essay, Benjamin R. Barber warns that America is moving toward illiberal education in which students are increasingly unequipped for citizenship in a free society (p. 199). John P. Spencer argues for a new way forward that he calls civic science, in which he means a merger of the study of science and the ideals of democratic citizenship (p. 213) as well as, more broadly, the relationship between science, knowledge, and citizens in democratic societies. Lisa Clarke issues a call for teachers to collectively embrace teaching as a form of public work. Each author acknowledges the limitations of the current path of our educational narrative and argues for a new possibility in linking education with democratic sensibilities.

The final part summarizes and synthesizes the main points. In particular, Boyte has a concluding essay that does an effective job at tying together the many different ideas in this book. He ends by suggesting a number of conceptual resources for American higher education that can serve as a common reference point that can span the diverse seats at the political table. The strength of this book is that it highlights the fact that the democratic narrative running through higher education has deep cultural and historical roots in American society and reminds its readers that we have the responsibility to reclaim this narrative for the betterment of society. This is a powerful message. This book provides both scholars and practitioners strong historical and policy arguments as to why higher education should be conceived as something much greater than mere vocational training. Indeed, it should be viewed as something that is vital to the very survival of American democracy.

A potential weakness of this book is that in an attempt to cover so many different aspects of the democratic narrative in American higher education, the thoughts in the twenty-seven essays are necessarily brief introductions to compelling and complex ideas that could be greatly expanded. I believe that this was Boyte’s intention. I would argue that he chose breadth over depth to allow the readers to delve deeper into these rich ideas that are fundamental to both higher education as well as American society if they are so moved. I suspect many will be.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: September 26, 2015
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 18129, Date Accessed: 10/24/2021 11:45:26 PM

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About the Author
  • Philip Lee
    University of the District of Columbia
    E-mail Author
    PHILIP LEE is an assistant professor of law at the University of the District of Columbia, David A. Clarke School of Law. His research centers on academic freedom, diversity and educational access, and higher education history and law. His work has appeared in the St. Louis University Law Journal, West Virginia Law Review, Harvard Journal on Racial & Ethnic Justice (formerly the Harvard BlackLetter Law Journal), Harvard Kennedy School’s Asian American Policy Review, and Higher Education in Review.
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