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Democracy colleges

September 14, 2010

This post was written by Harry Boyte, founder and co-director of the Center for Democracy and Citizenship at Augsburg College.

Looking for inspiration and edification? A new book is just to the point.

Over the years I have interviewed many faculty, staff, and students in colleges and universities about their work, their aspirations, and their experiences. What has struck me most is the poignancy of the narrative of  enclosure, recalling the tragic story of the privatization of pastures, fields, and forests that prompted enormous streams of migration to America.

In parallel ways, the culture of higher education over the years has become more and more enclosed. When Ed Fogelman and I did interviews with more than 30 senior faculty at the University of Minnesota in 1997-98, what struck us most was the narrative of detachment and isolation.

“I communicate with the 40 people in my subdiscipline by Internet far more than the people in the offices on my floor,” said one political scientist. “We went into literature because we wanted to be engaged in the human drama,” said a department chair, but “we’re shut off from the urban scene all around us” (see “Public Engagement in a Civic Mission”).

A powerful antidote to isolation and enclosure in higher education has just been published. Scott Peters, formerly a researcher with the Center for Democracy and Citizenship, is largely responsible for rediscovering the vibrant traditions and practices of public work in land grant colleges and universities that created strong institutional identities as “democracy colleges.”

In his new book, Democracy and Higher Education: Traditions and Stories of Civic Engagement, Peters brings these traditions to life in a treatment of what he calls the “prophetic counter narrative” of education as a force for democracy. And he combines a wonderful intellectual and historical treatment of this tradition with stories of modern scholars who continue the public work tradition developing sustained, reciprocal, messy, but often profoundly generative partnerships with communities.

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