Edited by Harry C. BoyteNashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 2015
Democracy's Education: Public Work, Citizenship, and the Future of Colleges and Universities, a compilation of new essays about public work in higher education edited by Harry C. Boyte, often feels like it was written explicitly for readers of Public. And in a way, it was. Among its wide roster of contributors are Imagining America codirectors Timothy K. Eatman and Scott J. Peters, who contribute excellent pieces on the work life of academics and on the democracy's college tradition, respectively; assistant director Jamie Haft, who offers valuable insight into the public education and miseducation of young artists; and Boyte himself, whose historical and theoretical formulations frame the book and its arguments, and who often works closely with Imagining America and its leaders. In addition, several authors discuss Imagining America directly: two examples are Rutgers University-Newark chancellor Nancy Cantor, who describes IA's work in promoting public humanism and countering the notion that academics are "talkers not listeners" (77); and University of Pennsylvania doctoral student Cecilia M. Orphan, who describes IA's role in developing new models of graduate student socialization that would encourage rather than discourage public work.
This kind of institutional connection, far from weakening Democracy's Education, points to one of its greatest strengths. One of the book's central arguments, first articulated by Boyte and echoed many times by other contributors, is that effective change comes from working in and through institutions. This position runs contrary to a lot of contemporary left/liberal/progressive thought, which holds that change must come from working against established institutions (construed as the Man, the System, the Ideological State Apparatuses, etc.). Whatever readers may think of this argument, it's hard to deny that Boyte and his colleagues practice what they preach. This is a book of, by, and for institutions. Its contributors represent an unusually diverse array of institutions: colleges and universities large and small, from around the country and around the world, as well as high schools, the Kettering Foundation, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Obama administration, and the staffs of both Howard Dean and Paul Ryan, to name just a few. The authors are careful to present these institutions—be they left or right, black or white, insiders or outsiders—as neither villains nor saviors. Instead, they approach them as places where people work (with various self–interests), as communities that can be organized (in various ways, with varying degrees of ease), and as unique cultures unto themselves (which offer both potential opposition and a potential power base). This pragmatic, "no permanent friends, no permanent enemies" approach is a basic principle of broad-based community organizing, but it is rare to find it deployed so thoughtfully and effectively in a work of scholarship.
More impressive still, the book itself is a product of exactly the kind of organizing it promotes. As Eatman describes: "This volume grows out of the American Commonwealth Partnership led by Harry Boyte at the invitation of the White House and launched in 2011 as part of a national organizing effort which pivoted on the sesquicentennial of the first Morrill Land Grant Act in 2012" (134). These authors know each other, cite each other's work, talk about the work they and their institutions have done together in the past, and speculate on where their work might go in the future. Democracy's Education is best understood not as a stand–alone volume, á la most academic texts, but as a snapshot of a moment in time within an ongoing nationwide and worldwide campaign to bring public work (back?) into higher education. It gives readers the chance to observe leaders within this campaign as they evaluate their accomplishments and challenges, plan for future action, and open up their work to a broader audience.
Just how broad that audience is, is an open question. The authors' basic assumptions, namely that citizenship and institution–based change are both possible and desirable, will no doubt put off some "zealous post-modernist critics on the left" (199, to quote contributor Benjamin Barber). And even readers who share these assumptions might raise an eyebrow at some authors' claims of success. (In my six years on the University of Minnesota campus, for example, I cannot say I saw much of the engaged civic culture that former president Robert H. Bruininks describes in his essay.) Finally, there's the language. By academic standards, Democracy's Education is an easy read. Its authors take care to write in relatively plain English, and its short, stand–alone chapters let readers dip in and out without having to read the book cover to cover. Still, the reliance on specialized terminology—terms like public work, civic agency, strong democracy, and cultural organizing—may prove stymieing to readers outside the IA sphere and its ilk, be they nonacademics or academics in other disciplines.
But I hope they all read it anyway. Because, within its pages, they will find hope. Not the hope of naive romantics or cynical technocrats, but a hope born of a lot of experience doing hard, relational work in a lot of different contexts. A hope that says (in a phrase Boyte discusses at length) "yes, we can" (2). Yes, we can change institutions—and specifically, those institutions where we work—such that we can do public work in our work lives, not just in our off time. Yes, we can move beyond a consumerist, zero–sum politics where a small band of righteous warriors is forever struggling against the encroaching forces of darkness; we can work together, including with many people we previously considered enemies, to build a broad majority and start making serious, systemic change. And finally, yes, we in higher education in particular can, and must, do this work. "Higher education," Boyte insists, "is a crucial anchoring institution of citizenship." (3) It is where ideas get organized. This book convincingly argues that institutions of higher education, far from being powerless, possess immense potential power. It falls on us, who work in higher education and care about public work, to recognize and realize this power.
This claim and this book are invaluable correctives to the common complaint—by our colleagues, and maybe sometimes ourselves—that "there's nothing I can do," or "there's no movement I can be a part of." It is impossible to read Democracy's Education's scores of detailed accounts of public work in higher education institutions—from Maryland to Michigan to New York to Arizona to Iowa to Oregon to Pennsylvania to Minnesota, not to mention Japan and South Africa—and still walk away thinking "no one's doing anything." All of its penetrating intellectual insights aside, if Democracy's Education merely connects interested-but-disheartened academics with the public work that may be happening under their noses, that alone will be a major and vital accomplishment.