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Talk About Teaching and Learning
April 17, 2007, Volume 53, No. 30

Reclaiming the Democratic Purposes of American Higher Education

Matthew Hartley

What are the responsibilities of colleges and universities in a democracy? Benjamin Franklin envisioned Penn as an institution dedicated to cultivating in students the “Inclination” and the “Ability” to “serve Mankind, one’s Country, Friends and Family.” That civic vision was echoed in the founding documents of hundreds of private colleges in the aftermath of the Revolutionary War and in those of the land grant universities (e.g. Cornell, Penn State) established by the Morrill Act of 1862. When asked what accounted for the great progressive reforms that spread across the Midwest early in the twentieth century, Charles McCarthy, the first legislative librarian of the United States, replied, “a combination of soil and seminar”—universities dedicated to solving pressing, practical problems and to fostering enlightened civic leadership. a

By the 1980s, however, these civic purposes had faded and were in real danger of becoming a quaint relic of the past. American higher education had dramatically expanded. In 1900 barely 4% of all high school graduates attended college, by 1970 that number had grown more than ten-fold (45%). Universities, fueled by grants from the federal government, leaned heavily on research. Undergraduate education became almost an afterthought at many institutions. Student attitudes were changing as well. Data from an annual survey of more than 200,000 incoming freshmen by the Higher Education Research Institute (HERI) at UCLA show that in 1969, 80% of incoming freshmen believed that developing a meaningful philosophy of life was a very important goal; by 1996, that percentage had diminished to 42%.

In 1971, half of the students (49%) said they were attending college “to be able to make more money”; by 1991, that figure had climbed to three-quarters (74.7%).b Increasingly, the public came to view a college education as a ticket to securing a good job—a private rather than a public good.

There were also growing concerns that our common life was being eroded, a state of affairs that political scientist Robert Putnam illustrated with the image of Americans “Bowling Alone” and demonstrated with data showing sharp declines in membership of voluntary associations such as political parties, religious organizations, the PTA, and bowling leagues.c Of particular concern was rampant political disaffection. In 1989, the American Political Science Association’s Task Force on Civic Education for the 21st Century concluded: “We take as axiomatic that current levels of political knowledge, political engagement, and political enthusiasm are so low as to threaten the vitality and stability of democratic politics in the United States.” d Among the college freshmen surveyed by HERI, the percentage who agreed that it is “important for me to keep up-to-date with political affairs” declined from 58% in 1966 to 26% by 1998. Electoral turnout among 18-24 year olds declined from 42% in 1972 to 28% in 2000; not good news for a democracy.e

The state of affairs generated considerable dissonance in the academy. Ernest Boyer, then-president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching said: “I have this growing conviction that what is needed [for higher education] is not just more programs, but a larger purpose, a larger sense of mission, a larger clarity of direction in the nation’s life.”f This shared sentiment spurred dozens, hundreds and finally tens of thousands of individual faculty members and administrators to action. Dozens of associations sponsored hundreds of conferences and workshops across the country.g What emerged was a civic engagement movement.

One of the most prevalent strategies championed was service learning--linking community based activities with the curriculum. Early attempts at this work were rudimentary (a faculty members might tag on hours of “service” for extra credit) and the pedagogy was plagued with concerns over academic rigor. However, in full flower, service learning has been shown to be a powerful means of linking disciplinary content to pressing social problems.h A student in an environmental science course not only reviews research describing the effects of industrialization, she helps measure them in her own city. A sociology student not only reads about homelessness, he helps design and conduct a census of the population and develops a richer understanding of who these people are. Data gathered from 22,363 students who participated in HERI’s freshman survey four years later show that participation in service learning:

• Influences participants’ choice of careers in service fields;
• Increases awareness of community issues;
• Increases students’ sense of personal efficacy (“I can make a difference.”);
• Fosters greater commitment to social activism.i

Small wonder that use of service learning has spread across American higher education. A recent survey of 32,840 faculty found that one in five (21.7%) reported that they had taught a service-learning course in the past two years.j Twenty-one monographs representing distinct disciplinary and professional perspectives on service learning have been published by the American Association for Higher Education (AAHE).

Despite service learning’s capacity to enrich disciplinary understanding and promote community mindedness, its influence on political engagement is tenuous. As political scientist Harry Boyte puts it, service learning often “neglects to teach about root causes and power relationships, fails to stress productive impact, [and] ignores politics.” k

However, it is possible to forge these connections. Several years ago, Mary Summers, lecturer in political science and senior fellow at the Fox Leadership Program, developed a course with the assistance of Penn’s Center for Community Partnerships.l Ms. Summers and her students asked themselves: Why do only 60% of Philadelphia residents eligible for food stamps participate in the program? Partnering with the Greater Philadelphia Coalition Against Hunger and the Philadelphia Higher Education Network for Neighborhood Development (PHENND), Ms. Summers became principal investigator of a research project funded by the USDA that involved faculty and students from fourteen area colleges and universities.

Ultimately, the campaign screened 7,463 potential clients and enrolled 2,123 people. The research not only identified bureaucratic hurdles that prevented greater enrollment, the data resulted in policy changes to eliminate those barriers. (For example, County Assistance Offices expanded the use of phone interviews rather than requiring face to face interviews to become enrolled.) Helping someone eligible for food stamps enroll is a worthwhile service, understanding why food stamps exist and participating in research that changes public policy is exemplary civic education.

There are many opportunities to develop such courses at Penn. In addition to the resources of the Center for Community Partnerships,l Provost Ron Daniels has initiated the Ideas-in-Action program housed at Fels, which supports undergraduate courses aimed at addressing pressing public policy issues.m There are also countless smaller ways in which we can invite students to analyze and engage in difficult dialogues about how to respond to the key political issues of our times—global warming, the Patriot Act and the precarious trade-offs between safety and freedom, immigration, and the plight of the poor in this the wealthiest nation on earth. Robert Maynard Hutchins, president of The University of Chicago during the 1930s, once observed: “The death of democracy is not likely to be an assassination from ambush. It will be a slow extinction from apathy, indifference and undernourishment.” President Amy Gutmann’s PennCompact and the imperative to create a university that prepares “well-informed, public-minded citizens from all walks of life” points the way forward. But if these democratic ideals are to be fully realized, it’s up to us.

a www.legis.state.wi.us/lrb/pubs/feature/wisidea.pdf

b Astin, A. (1998). The Changing American College Student: Thirty-year Trends, 1966-1996. The Review of Higher Education, 21 (1), 115-135.

c Putnam, R. D. (1995). Bowling Alone. Journal of Democracy, 6 (1), 65-78.

d www.apsanet.org/section_463.cfm

e Author. (1999). The New Millenium Project: Part 1, American Youth Attitudes on Politics, Citizenship, Government, and Voting . Washingon, DC: National Association of Secretaries of State.

f Boyer, E. (1994, March 9). Creating the New American College. The Chronicle of Higher Education.

g Hollander, E., & Hartley, M. (2000). Civic Renewal in Higher Education: The State of the Movement and the Need for a National Network. In T. Ehrlich (Ed.), Civic Responsibility and Higher Education. Phoenix , AZ : Orynx Press.

h Eyler, J., & Giles, D. E., Jr. (1999). Where’s the Learning in Service-Learning? San Francisco , CA : Jossey-Bass.

i Astin, A., & Sax, L. J. (1998). How undergraduates are affected by service participation. Journal of College Student Development, 39 (3), 251-263.

j Lindholm, J. A., Astin, A. W., Sax, L. J. S., & Korn, W. S. (2002). TheAmerican College Teacher: National Norms for 2001-2002.

k Boyte, H. C. (2004). Everyday Politics: Reconnecting Citizens and Public Life. Philadelphia, PA University of Pennsylvania.

l www.upenn.edu/ccp/general/academically-based-community-service-3.html

m www.upenn.edu/almanac/volumes/v53/n09/ideas.html

 

Matthew Hartley is assistant professor of education in GSE.


 

This essay continues the series that began in the fall of 1994 as the joint creation of the
College of Arts and Sciences and the Lindback Society for Distinguished Teaching.

See www.upenn.edu/almanac/teach/teachall.html for the previous essays.

Almanac - April 17, 2007, Volume 53, No. 30