diversity digest
Summer 01
Institutional Leadership and Commitment
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The "Engaged University" in a Disengaged Society: Realistic Goal or Bad Joke?
By Benjamin R. Barber, Kekst Professor of Civil Society, University of Maryland and Director of New York office of University of Maryland's Democracy Collaborative

In a highly commercialized, ever more privatized society in which consumers take the place of citizens, the idea of engaging schools in the civic affairs of society and educating students as citizens rather than consumers appears idealistic or even foolish. Multiculturalism may be America's demographic reality, but though it has found its way into university curricula, it has yet to be taken very seriously in the interaction of the nation's schools and universities with the communities to which they putatively belong. In times when liberal education has come to mean an education in the private liberties of people to get a good job, there is a growing gap between what universities teach and what they are.

We have seen in the last century a movement away from civic and humanistic education towards professional and vocational training. Students spend more hours in front of our society's ubiquitous screens--movie, television, and computer--than in classrooms, and the commercialization of schools has turned classrooms themselves into theaters of consumerism. Tocqueville regarded public opinion as America's most influential teacher, and in an era when public opinion has been organized, corporatized, and commercialized, this is more true than ever.

Even as students from abroad flood graduate and professional programs ranked the best in the world, the communities in which those programs are conducted feature primary schools that our own students--if they are able--flee as quickly as they can. There is a radical disconnect between the university community and the communities universities nominally serve, just as there is a radical disjunction between what students learn in the classroom and what they are taught by the alternative tutors that constitute the media and entertainment industries.

The Founders knew better. Although citizenship was still limited, they understood well enough that those who were citizens required extensive education. Men and women may be born free but they are not born citizens--which is why the liberal arts (the "arts of liberty") were conceived as the instrumentalities of a democratic and civilized society. Nineteenth-century common school and church-related and public colleges put that apprenticeship at the center of the learning process.

In recent years, some universities and colleges have begun to reconsider their mission in terms of the requirements of a free multicultural democracy. Programs in community service once insulated from curricula are now being integrated into education programs. At Rutgers University, the Citizenship and Service Education Program enrolls nearly one thousand students in courses with a service component--under the direction of the Dean of Undergraduate Education. At public universities like the University of Minnesota, projects that cultivate a relationship with the community have been put front and center. At Campus Compact, college presidents cooperate in supporting academically relevant service programs at their own institutions. The Ford Foundation and the Open Society Institute (among others) are exploring service education in Russian and African settings.

At the University of Maryland, with the support of Governor Glendenning and Lieutenant Governor Kathleen Kennedy Townsend as well as active underwriting from President Dan Mote, a commitment has been made to the idea of "the engaged university"--an idea embodied in a "civil society initiative" that recently gave birth to a remarkable new entity called The Democracy Collaborative. The Democracy Collaborative, bringing together senior scholars and practitioners at Maryland as well as at representatives of like-minded centers and institutes at over two dozen other American and European universities, is dedicated to the proposition that academic institutions enhance rather than compromise their educational programs when they engage actively in the civic, economic, and social issues that face the communities--local, national and global--to which they per force belong.

The artificial chasm that too often separates colleges and their students from the problems and realities that define the subject matter of their studies desperately needs to be bridged. When it is, the abundant assets of our most successful institutions become resources for those who are without assets and resources. On the way to engaging the larger world, educational institutions strengthen their own pedagogy and enhance the diversity of their programs.

The fundamental goal of The Democracy Collaborative is to contribute to developing a catalyzing and powerful vision of what can be done--the forces that can be unleashed--when the University as one of the most important civic institutions in America works with renewed commitment hand-in-hand with engaged citizens. This can mean extending university programs to the community (facilitating the mentoring of high school teachers by university scholars or developing community service programs that bring academic expertise to the community, for example) and it can mean bringing the community into the university's pedagogical circle (a training program for community organizers or an arts programs for community schools, for example).

Now to be certain, even if we put these new initiatives aside, colleges and universities have incorporated multicultural models of learning into the curricula they offer to their increasingly multicultural student populations. But the real multiculturalism comes with bridging communities, breaking down the artificial walls that divide classroom from street and library from playground. It comes with a conscious recognition of the dangers of commercialization and the homogenizing impact commerce can have on diversity.

It is an oddity of the ideology of privatization that it fails to recognize how a monopoly of the "private" over the public can be as insidious to liberty as a monopoly of the public over the private. When religion dominates every sector of society, we call it theocracy and denounce it as totalitarian; when politics dominates every sector of society, we call it despotism and denounce it as totalitarian. But when highly structured corporate markets dominate every sector of society, we call it competition and celebrate it as liberty. True diversity can no more withstand market triumphalism and homogenous consumer identities than it can totalitarian oppression from a church or state.

The ideal of the engaged university championed by The Democracy Collaborative, Campus Compact, and similar organizations has as its first objective, then, cultivation of that genuine diversity and civic plurality that defines liberty. They try to model the engaged student and the engaged university as alternatives to either the ivory tower institution that isolates the campus from society or the corporatized university that makes schooling a wholly owned subsidiary of the marketplace. If we can put flesh on the bones of a pedagogical theory that regards students as citizens-to-be and citizens as permanent students for whom life-long-learning is the prerequisite of the good life, we may begin to have universities as good in what they are as they are in what they teach.

Benjamin Barber is the author of many books, including the acclaimed Jihad vs. McWorld and, most recently, The Truth of Power: Intellectual Affairs in the Clinton White House. He will be a plenary speaker at AAC&U's upcoming Annual Meeting, Changing Students in a Changing World: Culturally Diverse, Economically Divided, Globally Interdependent. For conference information, see http://www.aacu-edu.org.

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A conversation at the Democracy Collaborative's Civic Globalism Roundtable, Washington, D.C., April 2001. Left to right: University of Maryland Professor Ernest Wilson, former South African Ambassador Frederick Sonn and James Earley, Director of Cultural Studies and Communications, Smithsonian Folkways, Smithsonian Institution.