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Democracy and higher education

traditions and stories of civic engagement

Scott J. Peters

Publication Year: 2010

How are we to understand the nature and value of higher education's public purposes, mission, and work in a democratic society? How do-and how should-academic professionals contribute to and participate in civic life in their practices as scholars, scientists, and educators?
     Democracy and Higher Education addresses these questions by combining an examination of several normative traditions of civic engagement in American higher education with the presentation and interpretation of a dozen oral history profiles of contemporary practitioners. In his analysis of these profiles, Scott Peters reveals and interprets a democratic-minded civic professionalism that includes and interweaves expert, social critic, responsive service, and proactive leadership roles. 
     Democracy and Higher Education contributes to a new line of research on the critically important task of strengthening and defending higher education's positive roles in and for a democratic society.

Published by: Michigan State University Press

Front Matter

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pp. vii-viii

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pp. ix-xii

This book is based on a lot of listening. I want to acknowledge two main kinds. First, it’s based on a great deal of listening over the past decade or so to the conversation that has been taking place—both in meetings and conferences and in a newly emerging literature—about the status and future of higher education’s public mission, purposes, and work. I’ve listened as participants in this conversation have raised and wrestled with questions and puzzles, debated ideas and theories, ...

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pp. xiii-xx

The report by President Harry Truman’s Commission on Higher Education with which Scott Peters frames this book defi nes democracy as the fundamental purpose of higher education. But the democratic dimensions of higher education have eroded sharply since World War II. Though there have been many civic engagement efforts in higher education in recent years, they have not made much of a dent in the forces that are turning higher education into a private good, a system with a few winners and many losers. ...

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Introduction and Overview

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pp. 1-16

W e begin with a story. Molly Jahn was puzzled. A representative of a relatively new seed company had just told her that the company was going to drop its license to grow and sell seeds of a variety of winter squash she had developed. To Molly, a plant geneticist and tenured professor in the Department of Plant Breeding and Genetics at Cornell University, the company’s decision didn’t make sense. The variety had sold exceptionally well ...

Part 1: The Public Purposes and Work Question in American Higher Education

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1. Answering the Public Purposes and Work Question

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pp. 19-50

There are, of course, many different answers to the question of whether academic professionals should be engaged off their campuses in the public work of democracy, and if so, what public purposes they should pursue, what roles they should play, and what contributions they should seek to make. This question is effectively answered every day—even if it is never explicitly posed—as academic professionals make practical judgments in particular situations (either alone or with others) ...

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2. Questioning the Answers

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pp. 51-62

In chapter 1, we identifi ed four general answers to the question of whether academic professionals should be engaged in the public work of democracy, and if so, what public purposes they should pursue, what roles they should play, and what contributions they should seek to make. We related each answer to a different normative tradition (or type) in American higher education: the service intellectual, the public intellectual, the action researcher / public scholar / educational organizer ...

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3. Developing and Using Practitioner Profiles

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pp. 63-72

The four normative traditions we sketched and questioned in the previous two chapters represent general answers that have been provided in American higher education since the late nineteenth century to the question of whether academic professionals should be engaged in the public work of democracy, and if so, in what ways and for what purposes. Questioning these answers is one important step we must take in the task of improving our conversations about the nature and value of higher education’s public work, ...

Part 2: Practitioner Profiles

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4. Reaching Outside the Compartmentalized Structure

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pp. 75-98

In this profi le, Molly Jahn tells us how and why, as a plant geneticist, she became engaged in civic life. As the title of the profi le suggests, the goals she has decided to pursue in her academic and public work have required her to reach outside the compartmentalized organizational structure of the land-grant, research university. The stories and experiences she shares about her development and work as a publicly engaged scientist and scholar help us to see and imagine the civic possibilities of the natural and biological sciences ...

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5. It Isn’t Rocket Science

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pp. 99-118

As a professor with a background in community organizing, Ken Reardon has not only been a leading scholar and change agent in his academic field; he’s also been on the front lines of the larger civic engagement and service-learning movements in American higher education. In addition to sharing part of his life story with us in this profile, Ken also tells a highly provocative and instructive practice story about a public work project he and his students helped to organize in ...

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6. The Making Is the Learning

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pp. 119-136

The practice story Paula Horrigan tells in this profile shows us how she uses service learning and action research in ways that engage neighborhood residents and students in participatory planning processes. As her practice story reveals, this can require faculty, students, and community members to undergo fundamental reconfigurations in attitudes, identities, and practices, each of which can generate significant resistance. ...

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7. Every Interaction Is an Educational Opportunity

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pp. 137-150

In this profile, Dan Decker recounts why and how he helped to establish a new research unit at Cornell University on the human dimensions of wildlife and natural resource management. In telling his story, which involves the development of public relationships with government agencies, professional associations, and community groups, he refers to himself and his colleagues as “change agents, in the old-fashioned sense.” ...

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8. To Be in There, in the Thick of It

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pp. 151-164

The practice story Marcia Eames-Sheavly tells in this profile centers on her work of organizing a community garden project at an elementary school in Freeville, New York. Her story is instructive and deeply moving, on several levels. Working as a mother and community volunteer as well as an academic professional with expertise in horticulture, Marcia helps us to see how academic and public work can be integrated in mutually beneficial ways. ...

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9. I Never Set Myself Up as Somebody Special

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pp. 165-180

“Someone has to be responsible to society for the long term,” Antonio DiTommaso points out. “Who’s it going to be?” As we learn from reading his profile, Antonio assigns a share of this responsibility to publicly funded faculty members such as himself. He pursues it in practice through his research on, and teaching about, weeds. As a participant in the public work of pursuing sustainability, he often travels beyond the campus to farms and towns in New York State, ...

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10. Is It Your Problem, or Is It a Social Problem?

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pp. 181-194

As a publicly engaged scholar, Tom Lyson—who unfortunately died in 2006—was an outspoken critic of industrial agriculture and, at times, his own academic institution and discipline. He was also a leading theorist and advocate of what he called “civic agriculture.” The main practice story he tells in this profile is about his experience fighting a school consolidation initiative in Freeville, New York, a small town near Cornell University that he not only lived in but also served as mayor. ...

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11. My Path Has Been Different from My Predecessors

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pp. 195-212

Marvin Pritts hated picking berries when he was growing up in rural Pennsylvania. It’s ironic, because his position as a professor at Cornell University is focused on berry crops. In this profile, he recounts how he ended up at Cornell, and why and how he has built long-term public relationships with berry growers and others across the Northeast (and beyond) in his work as an academic professional. The brief practice stories he tells along the way reflect a path that is different from his predecessors’. ...

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12. The Expert in the Middle

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pp. 213-230

In the first paragraph of his profile, Frank Rossi tells us that his primary responsibility as a professor in the field of turfgrass science is to extend information from the university to the public. But what we see him doing in the stories he tells about his work and experience in the rest of his profile goes well beyond this. We see him taking bullets and dodging flying bombs (metaphorically speaking, of course) as he challenges the views and behaviors of industry and environmental groups ...

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13. Leapfrogging Back and Forth

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pp. 231-262

In this profile, John Sipple gives us a richly detailed account of his work and experience as a graduate student and his efforts to develop and pursue a research agenda as an assistant professor in the field of education. The main practice story he tells helps us to see how scholars who choose to integrate their academic and public work can end up leapfrogging back and forth between scholarly and public worlds. ...

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14. I Feel Like a Missionary

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pp. 263-290

In this profile of Tom Maloney, which is edited from the transcripts of three lengthy interviews, we gain considerable insight into the life story and work of an academic professional who says he often feels like a missionary. We understand the meaning of that term in an old-fashioned, prophetic change agent sense. While Tom tells us that his work is focused on helping managers of agricultural and horticultural enterprises become better leaders and managers, ...

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15. A Sense of Communion

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pp. 291-312

During the summers while she was growing up in Detroit, Anu Rangarajan took care of her family’s yard and garden and gave her mother a rose every day. In this two-part profile, she tells us how she has integrated her love for plants and people—especially the people who grow our food—in developing her life work as an educator. What we see in her stories and experiences is an academic professional with a remarkable commitment to building respectful, collaborative relationships between university experts, farmers, and community members. ...

Part 3: Learning from Profiles and Practice Stories

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16. Lessons

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pp. 315-348

The practitioner profiles published in part 2 of this book are highly complex texts. They include views and opinions about a wide range of issues. Much more importantly, they are richly and densely storied. They include life stories, practice stories, and larger institutional and cultural stories. Some of these stories are relatively long and detailed, while others are quite brief and sketchy. ...


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pp. 349-356


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pp. 357-372


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pp. 373-382


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pp. 383-396

E-ISBN-13: 9781609172169
Print-ISBN-13: 9780870139765

Page Count: 400
Publication Year: 2010

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Education, Humanistic -- Philosophy.
  • United States -- Politics and government.
  • Equality -- United States.
  • Democracy and education -- United States.
  • Education, Higher -- United States -- Administration.
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