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In a society that doesn’t always live up to its ideals, how can we encourage students to live publicly involved, culturally aware lives? The answer, says the author, is to offer students an extensive education in the “democratic arts.”
THE POPULAR WISDOM tells us that American civic life and the American community are in sharp decline. From these social critics, the implications for the vitality of American democracy are dire. Volunteerism, club membership, community organizations, activist groups, traditional religious groupings, and just the simple, informal interpersonal connections of community social life all sum to important components of American civic life. And we know from Alexis deTocqueville’s Democracy in America up to Robert Bellah and colleagues’ Habits of the Heart that a rich and participatory culture supports a vibrant democracy. The decline in civic participation forecasts a drop in reciprocity among citizens that forms critical bonds within a democratic community, particularly one seemingly unable to cope with its own celebrated diversity.
One such commentator is Harvard’s Robert Putnam, author of Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. The title reflects his fear that although the number of individuals who bowl has increased, the number of bowling leagues has dropped dramatically over the last few generations. He uses the metaphor to illustrate the upsurge in private life and the search for individual gratification at the cost of abandoning public life and social bonds.
Putnam carefully documents the more than thirty-year decline in the conventional measures of formal political participation, such as voting in elections, belonging to a political party, and participating in local politics. As an illustration, only 13 percent of those eligible voted in New York City’s mayoral election in the early 1980s. In parallel fashion, civic life is in jeopardy, with declining participation rates in religious affiliations and overall religious practice, despite the growth in evangelical religions. Putnam is clear in his documentation of the historic importance of traditional religious affiliations for the depth and scope of civic volunteerism throughout American history.
In addition to declining membership rates within religious organizations, union and professional association affiliations are also in decline. Union membership has fallen from a high of 35 percent in the mid-1950s to under 14 percent today. With job tenure rates down and temporary and part-time employment rising, other forms of workplace social bonds appear to be in atrophy, according to Putnam.
Putnam even documents a number of surveys that illustrate a declining rate of participation in dinner parties, entertaining at home, groups playing cards, and, of course, joining bowling leagues. Local pubs are replaced with fast food enterprises; even sports participation is down in spite of the isolated growth in youth soccer. And finally, Putnam asserts that the rate of volunteerism is down by 30 percent in the last twenty years, with a dramatic fall-off in the numbers of thirty- to fifty-year-olds volunteering.
Although Putnam provides adequate evidence to document his thesis, I would argue that there is another reality emerging in the United States, in particular on our high school and college campuses. Never mentioned in Bowling Alone is any hint of the dramatic growth of undergraduate and high school student participation in community service and community-based learning. When one adds a number of other forms of civic and campus participation across the American campus landscape, we begin to realize that within our culture of individualism, many students are experiencing a renewal of democratic sensibilities. I will argue that this engagement is equal to charting a very powerful new paradigm of campus work—a paradigm based on teaching the “democratic arts.”
A FEW YEARS AGO I was teaching a group of mostly senior undergraduates in a rural liberal arts college. I experienced one of those rare moments when a student’s personal transformation dignified the entire course project.
We were engaged in a community-based learning course in political science. The topic was democracy, community, and public service. We read many texts on American diversity, and we confronted the vexing issues of pluralism and multiculturalism. As part of the course, several students elected to work with a residential drug treatment program for women and their children, where most of the residents were required to stay between three months to one year. Almost all of them had previously lived in New York City.
One of my students assigned to this site was a very accomplished, somewhat outspoken young woman from a white, upper-middle-class family. Materially comfortable and socially skilled, this student was an articulate feminist, well on her way to any number of postgraduate opportunities. She brought a combination of intellectual aggressiveness and personal confidence to each class meeting. As we engaged in a serious debate about the inability of American democracy to come to grips with the seemingly intractable issues of racism and inequality, this student found it quite easy to position herself on the side of the marginalized voices in the course readings. She resonated to the words of Frederick Douglas, Cornel West, and Audre Lord.
INSOMESENSE this young woman’s game was intellectual and abstract. She only had to side with the better arguments in these debates. As do many talented students, she learned to critically assess anything placed before her. Then something remarkable occurred. As she worked through a number of rather messy evenings of her public service at the center, my young student began a journey of self-reflection that opened up a new, deeper level of understanding about the tragic consequences of American democracy’s failure to fulfill its commitment to racial and gender equality.
In a final assignment—a “citizenship autobiography”—she attempted to integrate the course readings and discussions with her thirty hours at the center. She compared her life with that of one of the young resident mothers from New York City. They were roughly the same age but from different sides of the race-class borders of contemporary American society.
Within the community-based learning course, my student’s experience opened her to a level of understanding and commitment unavailable to her in her previous undergraduate career. She “learned” the material in a deeper way than before because she joined ideas and action into a powerful learning experience.
What my young student taught me was that she was beginning her education in the democratic arts. She was assembling all the parts—a deep understanding of American history and its pluralist ideals, the specific histories of ethnic and racial groups in the United States, and finally, some lived intercultural moments when ideas and experience become intertwined, allowing a far deeper reflection and generating sustainable commitments. My student was developing the arts of democracy—voice, critical judgment, empathy, reciprocity, commitment, and action.
How do we make her type of learning experience the indelible one in American higher education? Why is it imperative for higher education to take on this responsibility at this time?
SADLY, colleges are one of the last institutions where Americans can experience intercultural life. In a society based on the ideals of democratic pluralism but limited by its failure to realize them, the absence of any sustained and meaningful, as well as inclusive, social experience within the other public domains places a dramatic responsibility on American higher education. It requires us to teach for and about intercultural, pluralist democratic citizenship.
To fulfill this responsibility, American colleges have attempted to expand access, but we need to increase our curricular substance and provide an experiential base for civic education.
All of this speaks to the best ideals of American education: to educate all who seek higher learning; to provide them with the critical skills necessary for independent thinking; to open students to the variety of human experiences; and to help them learn that democracy requires reciprocity and responsibility as much as it needs personal freedom and individual choice.
But how far we need to travel. Our campuses are seemingly flooded with the learned habits of a newly resegregated America. Students arrive on campus fearing encounters with “the stranger”; many students are in deep denial about the contours of inequality. Worse, they have been denied any real sense of idealism; hence they believe that injustices and differences are likely immutable.
Like immigrants to a new land who don’t speak the language with ease and who remain ignorant of the cultural cues and folkways, students find comfort in recreating the culture from which they came as quickly as possible. A visit to the campus dining hall is likely to provide visual proof of social self-segregation, however much they may be affirming intragroup learning and identity formation.
All of this is to say that the task of higher education is complicated but not impossible. Success will not be realized simply by addressing the curriculum, although that remains a necessary but not-quite-sufficient ingredient. Clearly, democratic education will not succeed by simply adding diversity to the demographic composition of the student population, although that remains a critical component. And certainly the most enterprising cocurricular diversity education programs and service learning programs will not, by themselves, provide a complete democratic education.
None of these efforts will suffice on their own. All of them—and more—will be necessary to provide students with a complete education that prepares them to live lives in which freedom, responsibility, and complexity collide before them everyday. Without a vision of intercultural democracy and, concurrently, an effective pedagogy of democratic learning, the attempts by colleges and universities to address their democratic missions will appear to students, their parents, and the general public as ideological, arbitrary, and incoherent. It is necessary to develop an integrated approach to the entire fabric of campus learning and teaching—one that embraces critical collaborations between faculty members and student affairs staff. In the absence of a comprehensive effort, the larger project of intercultural democratic education becomes even more problematic. Without academic and student affairs collaboration, constituencies fail to build on those important learning opportunities where ideas and experiences can be juxtaposed at transformative moments. Worse, failure to integrate these realms maintains a remnant of anti-intellectualism, where academic learning is perceived as a means to a credential instead of a guide to understanding one’s autobiography in the context of a democratic society.
WHAT TYPE of higher education do we need now? And how will it help our students engage in a reflective practice of the democratic arts? How do we engage our students in the fundamental work of diversity education while also involving them in constructing an inclusive and respectful community?
I would argue that much of the curricular and cocurricular activity on our campus sums to a larger educational project. More specifically, students are learning the arts of democracy when they engage in learning communities, community-based learning, intercultural and diversity education, interdisciplinary studies, and residentially based “living and learning” programs. In the cocurriculum, the work in diversity education, AIDS-health education, and public service all add dramatically to the student experience. When we view them cumulatively, the outline of a new democratic experience is apparent. Each piece promotes the objectives of pluralist or multicentric democracy.
Learning Communities. Joining students into a cluster of courses taught by a team of faculty members fosters student skills in identifying and negotiating differences. As a result, they form new connections based on deeper learning. At LaGuardia Community College in New York City, the learning communities led faculty members to appreciate these emerging democratic sensibilities. In research on learning communities, Roberta Mathews and Dan Lynch interviewed a number of teachers who had been involved in this work. Here is one teacher’s observation.
Community-Based Learning. When students are able to connect ideas and experience into a reflective practice, we are teaching democratically. Joining students to a larger community accomplishes this objective. When students actively engage in community problems, they learn that public involvement may have an impact on the lives of others in need. They first gain a sense of empathy for others and later a needed sense of accomplishment in implementing meaningful change in the public realm. If nurtured correctly, community-based learning allows for a greater mutual respect among students and community residents.
Second, community-based learning teaches students that there is a “public” that can be engaged and shaped, that their involvement can have a positive impact, that civic participation is part of social action. In an age of heightened cynicism, restoring a sense of practical idealism is critical for building a democratic sensibility among young people.
Recently, one of my students captured these points in his citizenship autobiography:
Experience in service learning is essential in the education process toward becoming learned citizens. A vital part of our education, service teaches individuals how to work together for a common goal. Whether that goal is simply painting a fence, working with hospital patients, or feeding the hungry, it causes all involved persons to put aside their differences, and act as true citizens participating in their community. Service coerces persons to take a look at their community and become involved in the changes that happen there. Farland and Henry mention, ‘isolation from the larger world is the principle obstacle to education for public life.’ It is this involvement in service that creates pride and a sense of responsibility in one’s community. For it is when members of the community take responsibility for their environment that they truly become citizens. They have the character traits—honor, pride and responsibility, among others—that define them as true citizens of society. [Guarasci and Cornwell, p. 48]
Diversity Education. Although uneven in its delivery, many colleges have comprehensive cocurricular programs on campus pluralism. These programs traverse student affairs, student activities, orientation programs, freshman 101 seminars, and a variety of campus events. Many schools go further and deeper, embedding diversity learning into a meta-cocurriculum involving student clubs, leadership training, and student government agendas.
Beyond this, almost all undergraduate curricula require some coursework on American and international diversity. Some of this is mechanical and superficial, but many colleges and universities are making substantive encounters into multiculturalism. The University of Michigan’s Intergroup Relations Program is a prime example. Students enroll in courses that explore deeply the interplay of stereotypes and their negative effects. The program maintains both curricular and cocurricular options.
David Schoem, director of the Michigan program, recently wrote about the impact on Ann Arbor students. This is how one student evaluated her experience:
Interdisciplinary Studies and General Education. In many ways interdisciplinary core curriculum programs began as projects in democratic education. In The Meaning of General Education, Gary Miller illustrates how interdisciplinary general education programs were initiated in the wake of World War II as a response to the inadequacies of both liberal education and the free-elective curriculum, which was then newly introduced. The emphasis was on knowledge acquisition, but it proved limited in stressing social responsibility and participatory citizenship. Divided between the different schools of thought, which were oriented to either John Dewey’s pragmatism or Robert Hutchins’ and Alexander Meiklejohn’s humanism, the practice of interdisciplinary general programs provided students with learning experiences that stressed the connectedness of knowledge and human beings. The larger vision of general education always has been the emphasis on the human community as a laudable humanist ideal charged with both positive and treacherous possibilities. As such, interdisciplinary general education supplies contemporary students with a larger idealistic vision of human possibilities and democratic aspirations.
Living and Learning Programs. College residences that are restricted to students who share common living space fashioned around shared goals (residential colleges) have long provided important collaborative experiences. Joined together in common discourse around substantive themes, residential colleges offer undergraduates genuine experiences in democratic living where the virtues of voice, collaboration, reciprocity, and mediation are evident as part of everyday life.
St. Lawrence University’s First Year Program in its residential colleges provides an illustration of the educational opportunities available for this form of residential arrangement. After a dozen years of genuine success, faculty members and student affairs staff have developed a positive approach to helping students learn how to engage differences and fortify a positive community through the interplay of a common curriculum, hall governance systems, and joint faculty and residence hall staff leadership. Conflicts emanating from ethnic, gender, and sexual differences form the basis for problem solving founded on mediation and tolerance; the skills required for democratic learning are complimented by the intellectual perspective provided by the common curriculum.
At St. Lawrence University, the freshman program houses students by sections of a core curriculum. Faculty members plan and integrate their courses to link the classical and contemporary texts to the lived experiences of students sharing a common residence. One faculty participant captured an example of this approach using social contracts theory and residence hall governance. Recently, in Democratic Education in an Age of Difference, Grant Cornwell, director of the program, captured one faculty participant’s evaluation of the social contrast experiment with the freshman residence halls:
Most of these attempts, however, failed to attain the larger democratic goals of the program. They were unable to move the students beyond procedural, democratic forms and were inadequate for instigating student residents in engaging in the substantive issues of gender, ethnicity, class, and racial differences that framed their everyday conflicts. Faculty began to rely on more agile forms in order for students to engage their differences in an open and participatory style. Some of these newer attempts involved conflict mediations, “town” meetings, and counseling sessions. What did occur was a full engagement of issues of equity, voice, empowerment, and justice as a result of the intimacy of texts and authors linked to the lived text of campus life. Without the residential colleges, these moments would not likely occur. Students engaged in a process of civic and political importance. When successful, the arts of democracy—mediation, negotiation, commitment, and action—become palpable.
AS THESE FORMS of democratic education are aggregated within the undergraduate experience, students are, in effect, engaged in a comprehensive program of the democratic arts. Students are developing the democratic sensibility—active voice, collaborative skills, intercultural engagement, and reflective practice. In a time better known for cynicism and narcissism, students involved in this type of learning are likely to develop democratic aspirations and community involvement. Gradually, these students and their faculty student affairs mentors are affirming the possibility of an American pluralist democracy.
At Wagner College in New York City, my colleagues are attempting to realize the benefits of this model by building a comprehensive program that joins learning communities, community-based learning, diversity education, and multidisciplinary studies around a pedagogy of “learning by doing.” By founding the curriculum on the college’s urban location, the Wagner College faculty and staff designed a somewhat unique combination of reflective tutorials and learning communities, linking two disciplinary courses with themes and restricting enrollment to students enrolled in both courses. These students then enrolled in a third, related course—a reflective tutorial—with further integration around the course themes, intensive writing and research, and approximately thirty hours of (very important) related fieldwork.
This past semester one of these freshmen learning communities combined introductory environmental biology and introductory economics. The same twenty-six-student cohort enrolled in each; the general theme was “environmental concerns.” The reflective tutorial (two sections, thirteen students each) was taught by the same biology and economics faculty. The latter course emphasized action research and focused on Toms River, New Jersey—a cancer zone and the location of a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Superfund site. Local residents suffered disproportionately high rates of cancer and other diseases. The Wagner College freshmen were able to deepen their learning of biology and economics by understanding their respective relationships in engaging environmental issues, particularly those in Toms River. They interviewed cancer victims and their families, local environmental groups, chemical company corporate officials, and elected and EPA governmental representatives. They attended numerous town meetings and, of course, they conducted community-based research on the environmental and economic issues in Toms River. They worked with and among that local community, applying what they were learning in the classroom and contrasting to the real-world manifestations of environmental problems found in Toms River.
Initially these students found fault with the corporate decisions that resulted in an unregulated saturation of chemical storage and dumping in the area, but as they investigated further, they encountered the economic trade-off of jobs related to the local chemical factories. Later they looked at the impact of the environmental pollution on local real estate values and homeowners’ fear of further pollution revelations. In fact, the further they explored the issues, the more they immersed themselves in the community, the greater their appreciation for complexity of environmental issues as they uncovered sociological, economic, political, biological, and ethical layers to the problem. Finally, they came to deeply appreciate the need for substantive knowledge, community involvement, and justice seeking.
By the end of their first semester in college, these students had spent over thirty hours engaged in the community and endless hours in and out of their classes, focused on the Toms River Project. The professors are convinced that they exceeded past classes in the depth of learning in each of the respective disciplines. These professors joined the students in all of their community work, and together they connected their action research to the needs of the Toms River community. They ended the term with a campus conference on their work, with many Toms River community and corporate representatives in attendance and with extensive coverage in local newspapers.
As a beginning of their undergraduate careers, it was a full start. They learned to express themselves, to differentiate opinions from arguments, to uncover the depth and complexity of issues, to encounter the social nature of knowledge making, and to connect learning to the needs of the communities around them. Finally, they learned that democracy requires commitment and that it is not an abstract concept but a way to live one’s life. Their democratic education is just beginning.
Dewey, J. Democracy and Education. New York: Free Press, 1916.
Guarasci, R., and Cornwell, G. Democratic Education in an Age of Difference. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1997.
Guarasci, R., and Mapstone, D. “Intercultural Citizenship and Democratic Sensibility.” In J. L. DeVitis, R. W. Johns, and D. Simpson (eds.), To Serve and Learn: The Spirit of Community in Liberal Education. New York: Peter Lang, 1998.
Hutchins, R. The Higher Learning in America. New Haven, Conn.:Yale University Press, 1936.
Mathews, R., and Lynch, D. “Learning Communities: Collaborative Approaches to Engaging Differences.” In R. Guarasci and G. Cornwell, Democratic Education in an Age of Difference. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1997.
Meiklejohn, A. The Experimental College. New York: Harper Collins, 1932.
Miller, G. E. The Meaning of General Education: The Emergence of a Curriculum Paradigm. New York: Teachers College Press, 1988.
Putnam, R. Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. New York:Simon &Schuster, 2000.
Tatum, B. Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? New York: Basic Books, 1997.
Schoem, D. “Intergroup Relations, Conflict, and Community.” In R. Guarasci and G. Cornwell, Democratic Education in an Age of Difference. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1997.